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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


The hemp experience

Posted 2/16/16 (Tue)

It took a long time, a lot of people, a lot of media reports and a lot of government intervention but it’s finally happening.

North Dakota farmers are now allowed to legally grow industrial hemp. This comes exactly 20 years after the Canadian government made it legal there in 1996.

Honestly, it’s surprising it took this long. The North Dakota Legislature actually legalized it in 1997, but the federal government must have thought North Dakota had a bunch of hoodlums making laws and kept it illegal on the federal level through numerous lawsuits and appeals.

And in those 20 years that have passed since an entire industry infrastructure has been built up on the Canadian prairies, North Dakota farmers could only watch their Canadian counterparts, sometimes less than a mile away, legally growing hemp, harvesting it and selling it to various entities in the United States where processed hemp has been legal.

Four North Dakota farmers have been chosen by the Department of Agriculture and will grow hemp this coming season.

Last year North Dakota State University had some research plots to test the viability of growing hemp in North Dakota.

Apparently NDSU gave the Ag Department the “okie dokie” so we might be able to see it in the field for the first time since 1959.

It could be the start of a new revolution for North Dakota farmers and here’s why.

The most valuable part of the hemp plant is the seed. It’s an oil seed much like canola or soybean. The seeds are crushed in a roller and the oil is used for a variety of things most notably on a salad that goes with balsamic vinegar.

The stalk is very useful as well and that’s where the hemp rope comes from. It’s a very sturdy material and when woven together makes a very durable product.

Hemp rope was used by the Navy in World War II and after the war, somebody figured out that it would make durable textiles, thus came hemp clothing, which is a booming business in parts of this country, thanks to Canadian hemp farmers.

The leaves are useless but some people might interpret that otherwise as an illegal opportunity.

Unfortunately for those opportunists, hemp doesn’t have any psychoactive value like marijuana, so it has no monetary value on the black market.

In a 1998 interview with Brian McElroy, a Darlingford, Manitoba farmer who was among the first in Canada to legally grow hemp, he said that young people from Winnipeg raided his farm with machetes, cut some of the hemp down and quickly drove away.

“Their just going to get a headache,” he said.

Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse here, but I can see a whole industry popping up in North Dakota just like it did in Manitoba in the late ‘90s.

And as a full-time agricultural journalist, I got to see this industry take off from St. Agathe to Winnipeg to Dauphin. In addition, there was an excitement among Manitoba farmers that this alternative crop was actually going to be a beneficial rotation crop.

In 2007, 40,000 acres of industrial hemp was grown across Manitoba, but has dropped since.

Today, Hemp Oil Canada and Manitoba Harvest have become major players in the hemp market. In fact, Manitoba Harvest personnel regularly attend the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., for better market exposure.

North Dakota has a long way to go but loosening up federal regulations is a good first step.

The next step is to see how the harvest turns out and if all else goes well on the four farms selected to grow hemp this summer.

Two farms are in LaMoure County, one is in Grand Forks County and the fourth is in Grant County. Among the four producers, 240 acres of hemp will be seeded this spring.

It’s hard to say if North Dakota will see 40,000 acres of hemp, but you never know. Stagnating cereal grain prices and saturated canola and soybean markets could push producers to seek out that profitable alternative.

It should also be pointed out that the guys who are growing hemp this year will have a distinct advantage over others who may want to grow it in the future.

Among the criteria the Ag Department laid out was that the farmers had to find their own seed source, most likely in Canada, and they would be responsible for importing it into the state.

Those guys are going to have seed necessary to supply more producers in 2017 and it will be slightly adapted to the climate.