Industrial hemp can grow more than ten feet tall. The plant, which can resemble marijuana grown for medical or recreational use, usually lacks THC, the chemical that gives users a high. (Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
An historic planting of Colorado’s first state-regulated industrial hemp crop is underway. More than 70 applications to grow the towering cousin of marijuana have come in to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Twelve states have passed legislation related to cultivation of industrial hemp, but few American farmers have latched on due to legal uncertainty.
Hemp plants look similar to marijuana because of their leaf shape, but the plant lacks the intoxicating chemical compound THC. It’s instead grown for its fiber and oil.
Hemp seeds increasingly are being included in cereals, granola bars and protein powders. Hemp oil shows up in personal hygiene products like lotions and salves. The plant’s fibers can be processed into clothing, rope, even automobile interior fabric.
Because the plant is still illegal at the federal level, Colorado rules require growers register with the state. Hemp has been receiving considerable hype since voters approved its cultivation along with recreational marijuana in 2012. Proponents call it a “miracle crop,” able to withstand drought conditions and with probable untapped market potential.
Advocates in a number of states have been working for years to legalize hemp cultivation and Colorado voters in 2012 chose to fully endorse the plant. Still, despite enthusiasm from many growers, it won’t change the lives of Colorado’s farmers just yet.
“Let’s face it. There’s no market. We’re not cultivating hemp on a large scale right now in this country,” Colorado Department of Agriculture deputy commissioner Ron Carleton says. “You can’t really speak too much about commodity prices because there’s no market.”
Pair that market volatility with a shortage of seed. Some growers report spending $5 per seed right now. Growers that have some seed say their phone is ringing off the hook from potential buyers. It’s still technically illegal to import viable hemp seed into the state, or into the country for that matter.
Few, if any, large-scale farmers who plant corn, wheat and alfalfa are adopting the crop this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to assure farmers their federal subsidies wouldn’t be interrupted if they choose to grow the plant, still considered a controlled substance.
The latest Farm Bill signed into law in February 2014 gave some direction. The law defines industrial hemp as different from marijuana as long as any part of the plant remains below a mandated level of THC.