Mitch McConnell’s bipartisan bill to legalize hemp could clear up confusion

Montana is a right-to-farm state, and our rights are expanding.

Hemp has been the talk of the watering hole for a while now, and this summer, 49 farmers across the state are licensed to grow industrial hemp. But there’s still a lot of confusion, stigma, and questions about this crop, which some say could help save family farms while spurring new industries.

Where can I get seeds? Do I need to irrigate? Where does hemp fit into my crop rotation? Where can I sell my harvest? Do I need to modify my combine? Is this even legal?

Montana Department of Ag, Montana Farmers Union, Montana agriculture

Ian Foley from the MT Department of Ag talks about the licensing process for industrial hemp.

The Montana Farmers Union and the Montana Department of Agriculture have been fielding a lot of questions like these, so they’ve been hosting workshops around the state to talk about the licensing, growing, harvesting, and processing of industrial hemp.

Last night, dozens of producers, farmers, and ag students battled yet another snowstorm to attend one of these workshops in the Gallatin Valley.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Hours earlier, Mitch McConnell, the Republican U.S. Senate majority leader, introduced a bill that would clear up a lot of the confusion around this crop. His bill, if it passes, would federally legalize hemp — a non-psychoactive plant in the cannabis family.

McConnell, of Kentucky, proposed this bill on behalf of his state’s farmers and manufacturers.

“We all are so optimistic that industrial hemp can become sometime in the future what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past,” he said.

No doubt his bill would benefit those family farms in Kentucky, but it would also have huge impacts on farmers here in Montana. Our farmers aren’t putting all their eggs in one wheat basket anymore. It’s just not the way we do ag these days. It’s too volatile, what with all the global competition and the recent talks of potential tariffs. That’s why farmers have been looking for new opportunities with beans, lentils, peas, and barley.

It never hurts to have another crop in the arsenal, and many folks are wondering if industrial hemp can be added to their mix.

What does it take to grow hemp?

No one at last night’s workshop made the claim that hemp is the cure-all crop that can grow itself, save the world, and make farmers millions of dollars. What they did say, however, is that industrial hemp is a viable crop that grows well in our neck of the woods and has a booming market.

“The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it,” said Colby Johnson, who grew 100 acres of hemp with his dad last year outside of Conrad.

Johnson worked closely with the Montana Department of Agriculture to get the seeds, which he put in the second week of June and harvested in early September. He was able to experiment by growing in two different fields. Next year, he plans to grow four different crops on those two plots to see which performs best after hemp, and he plans to grow hemp again this upcoming season.

“It was more fun to grow than wheat,” Johnson said. “I was more excited checking out these fields than other fields.”

As for the harvest? His plans, of course, are to sell it.

“That’s the thing with hemp, there’s so many offshoots,” said Johnson. There’s a lot of room for vertical-integration.

Jeff Kostuik, who works with the Canadian company Hemp Genetics International, has been growing hemp and consulting farmers for years, and could share a lot of information on the agronomy, seeding, harvesting, and processing of this cash crop.

Montana agriculture, industrial hemp, eastern montana

Eastern Montana hemp field from 2017. Photo courtesy of John Porterfield.

“We’re much more suited in the Northern states [to grow hemp] because of our climate,” Kostuik said at the workshop.

That’s good news for Montana, and gives us reason to get ahead of the curve.

Kostuik shared data from Southern Alberta, which has similar weather and landscape to us. When hemp was dry-farmed there, harvests averaged 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre. When it was irrigated, harvests could hit up to 2,000 pounds per acre.

While hemp is susceptible to the same types of diseases as other oil crops, it’s rare to have an entire field wiped out by disease. And, hemp grown here doesn’t require fungicides, insecticides, seed treatment, or herbicides.

“That is your herbicide there — your crop,” said Kostuik. “Hemp will not kill weeds, but it does an excellent job of suppressing them.”

Hemp also tends to bounce back from those major, God-fearing events that can destroy an entire season’s work in one day. It’s pretty tolerant of spring and fall frosts, and it’s been known to recover from major hail storms, including one that Kostuik had seen nearly decimate a field of 18 inch plants.

Of course, like with any new crop, there will be a bit of a learning curve. And right now, since our Montana State Land-Grant University isn’t doing research on this agricultural product, that learning curve can be a bit steep. Luckily, there are a lot of folks, like Kostuik and Johnson, who are willing to share their experiences and to help ease the transition.

If McConnell’s bill passes, there will be more money put into research and less hoops that farmers will have to jump through. The industrial hemp industry seems to be on the brink of something big, and luckily, because of the work already done here in Montana, our farmers won’t be left behind as the markets open up. Hopefully, if the energized packed room last night shows us anything about our state’s farmers, they’re eager to lead the way in what could be the next big commodity for our country.

-Amanda Garant

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