Tucked away in the farm bill recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives is a provision that could be huge for the proponents of industrial hemp, a plant that can be used to make rope, soaps, clothes, paper, bio-fuel, cooking oil and auto parts. In addition, its seeds are often found in food products.
The provision, authored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would allow colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and do research on the crop without being penalized by the federal government. While it only applies to states where industrial hemp is legal, Vermont is one of those 10 states. The others are Colorado, Oregon, California, Kentucky, Montana, West Virginia, Washington, North Dakota and Maine. Right now, growing or using hemp is illegal under federal law. While the provision doesn't overturn the law, it would stop federal authorities from harassing hemp farmers, researchers and higher-education institutions in those states.
"We're hoping northern Colorado could become a real center for information and technology related to domestic industrial hemp production," Polis told Gannett. "There's going to be rapid progress ... over the next decade and we hope that a lot of that can occur at (Colorado State University)."
Hemp has a long and honorable tradition in American History. Many of our founding fathers grew it and its fibers were used make rope and canvas products for ships, cloth for fabric and pulp for paper.
The problem with hemp however is it's marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin and has been tarnished by the war on drugs. The plant was swept up in anti-drug efforts and growing it without a federal permit was banned in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. According to the Associated Press, the last Drug Enforcement Administration hemp permit was issued in 1999 for a quarter-acre experimental plot in Hawaii. That permit expired in 2003. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last recorded an industrial hemp crop in the late 1950s, down from a 1943 peak of more than 150 million pounds on 146,200 harvested acres.
Interest in industrial hemp has grown in recent years, following the discovery of its potential nutrition benefits in food and as a component in composite materials and bio-fuel source material, wrote Politico's Jenny Hopkinson.
In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000, noted the Associated Press. Most of that growth was seen in hemp seed and hemp oil, which finds its way into granola bars and other products. Sales of hemp products in the U.S. reached $500 million in 2012, according to Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, which lobbies for the legalization of the product.
"All of that's coming from imported material," he told Politico. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense that really all our trading partners can grow these crops (but U.S. farmers can't). I think there is no question that hemp could be a multibillion-dollar market (in the United States)."
Legalized growing of hemp has bipartisan support from Democrats from marijuana-friendly states and Republicans from states where the fibrous plant could be a profitable crop.
"We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a statement.
Hopkinson noted getting the hemp measure included in the farm bill took considerable effort.
"Staff from McConnell's office and the House sponsors of the amendment had to educate other lawmakers who were often skeptical about allowing what has been long considered a controlled substance to be cultivated even for research purposes."
By giving states "the go-ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers," noted McConnell. "By exploring innovative ways to use hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, while avoiding negative impact to Kentucky law enforcement's efforts at marijuana interdiction, the pilot programs authorized by this legislation could help boost our state's economy."
So far in the 2014 legislative season, industrial hemp legislation has been introduced in several states including Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin, according to Vote Hemp.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill allowing for hemp production. For a number of years, Rural Vermont and the Vermont Hemp Industries Association has been advocating to allow Vermont farmers to cultivate hemp.
"Rural Vermont recognizes hemp cultivation as an opportunity to provide Vermont farmers with a highly versatile crop that gives them financial opportunity while increasing sustainability and filling the demand for local hemp products."
The American Farm Bureau Federation has been lobbying on a national level for the legalization of industrial hemp.
"At a time when small farms are innovating and diversifying to remain, competitive, we should provide every opportunity to increase farm incomes and allow the next generation the ability to continue living off the land as their families have for generations," state Kyle Cline, policy adviser for the bureau. "Industrial hemp is one such opportunity that may work for some farmers in certain regions. Furthermore, industrial hemp will allow the U.S. farmer to share in income that is currently going overseas."
It makes economic sense to exploit this versatile crop and allow American farmers to profit from the increased demand for hemp products.
Vermont is well-positioned to take advantage of the rapidly changing legal landscape related to hemp production. The University of Vermont conducted a study in 1996 to investigate the viability of industrial hemp and found it would provide a number of economic benefits to Vermont farmers. In addition, Vermont farmers have proven to be quite savvy in exploiting niche markets. The growth of hemp in the rugged farmland of Vermont could prove to be another venture the Green Mountain State's entrepreneurial spirit could excel at. All we are asking is give us a chance to prove it.