Amid all the excitement around marijuana legalization in America, another newly legal crop has received comparatively little attention: hemp. And yet hemp may prove to be even more transformative, especially in the West’s arid landscapes.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis sativa plant that is not psychoactive. Whereas marijuana plants can produce both the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) extracts, hemp produces only the latter.
And while marijuana is generally grown in small quantities under tightly controlled conditions—often indoors—hemp is grown like most other field crops such as corn and alfalfa.
Therein lies the potentially huge benefit for the West. Hemp can be grown to harvest on about half as much water as corn can, for example. Hemp also tolerates a wide variety of soils and temperatures, requires no pesticides, and grows extremely fast, soaring to as much as 20 feet in 100 days.
Thus, if hemp eventually replaces other crops across large acreages, it could free up precious water supplies in the arid West for other uses. This could become especially important with climate change expected to shrink Western mountain snowpacks.
“It uses more water at the very beginning of its growth,” said Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association. “But once it kind of passes its early development stage—about three weeks—it becomes one of the most drought-tolerant crops on the planet.”
Hemp, originally from China, may be one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. It was grown commercially in the United States until the 1930s, with the fibers processed to make rope, sails, and other fabrics. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively killed the industry because, at the time, it was not possible to distinguish between marijuana and hemp.
It was not until the 1970s that THC was identified as the defining characteristic of marijuana. By then, the entire genus of plants had been federally banned under the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
Today, CBD oil is widely recognized as an effective therapeutic treatment for many health problems, from basic muscle and joint strain to epilepsy and brain traumas like concussion.
CBD oil products are currently the main market for hemp growers in the U.S. But there are more than 25,000 other products that can be made from hemp, given the right processing equipment, including food for people and livestock, fabrics, building materials, ethanol, and biodiesel.
For all these reasons, the 2014 Farm Bill allowed hemp cultivation to resume in America for “research” purposes. The law required states to set up a permitting process, and an individual farmer’s crop could cover no more than 50 acres.
In 2017, the American hemp harvest totaled just 25,713 acres, according to the National Hemp Association. That’s more than double the acreage harvested in 2016—yet it pales next to the 16.5-million-acre harvest of alfalfa, the nation’s fourth-largest crop overall.
“For the last 80-plus years, most states have had legislation banning hemp,” Whaling said. “All of that legislation has to be unwound in order for states to start to research it.”
Western states are already leading the pack among hemp growers. In 2017, Colorado was the largest producer, with 9,700 acres harvested, followed by Oregon with just under 3,500 acres. Montana, Nevada, and Washington each harvested close to 1,000 acres last year. New Mexico is expected to join the list this year.
Keith Wiggins, a farmer and cattle rancher near Walsenburg, Colorado, plans to grow six acres of hemp this year on leased land that produced alfalfa last year. He got interested in hemp after his daughter-in-law gave him some CBD oil to apply to a painful ankle. He was blown away by how well it worked.
“It stopped the pain in my ankle,” Wiggins said. “I thought, if this stuff works this good, I gotta find out how they make it.”
Hemp is relatively easy to grow. But getting a crop in the ground is not. Growers must pass a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check, and obtain a permit from their state (if the state has created a program to allow hemp-growing) and often from their county government as well. Regular inspections are required to ensure the farmer is actually growing hemp and not marijuana.
In addition, some circumstances require growers to plant only female hemp plants. This ensures the plants cannot cross-pollinate with marijuana to accidentally produce a psychoactive plant. But raising only female seedlings first requires a time-consuming process to grow and screen seedlings in a greenhouse.
With all these complications, why bother growing hemp at all?
The answer is money. Some U.S. farms are reporting revenue of $90,000 per acre from CBD oil alone. That compares to around $600 per acre for alfalfa. This makes hemp an enticing choice for any farmer.
And that doesn’t count potential profit from the fiber in hemp stalks. Remarkably, there is no equipment in the U.S. capable of processing this tough fiber, Whaling said, so for now it is simply discarded by most farmers. That is expected to change as the market grows, eventually giving farmers access to the right processing equipment and another source of revenue for hemp products.
Hemp farming may get a big boost this year with legislation in Congress that would fully legalize it as an agricultural crop. The bill has bipartisan support and was introduced by the most powerful Republican in Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. If passed, it would eliminate all legal impediments to hemp-growing and make farmers eligible for many of the benefits available to other crops, including crop insurance and federal research grants.
Wiggins is weeks away from planting his first six acres of hemp seedlings. If results meet his expectations when he harvests in November, he hopes to plant more acres next year.
“It’s hard to make a living off of a few hundred acres growing alfalfa,” he said. “Most famers grow it here just to feed their cows through the winter. I can guarantee you that hemp will do better than alfalfa does.”