Christopher Doering 11:41 a.m. CDT October 28, 2016
WASHINGTON — Supporters of industrial hemp are optimistic the crop has a future in a state known for sweeping fields of corn and soybeans.
Proponents of reintroducing hemp in Iowa — tens of thousands of acres dotted the landscape during World War II — have worked to build their case by distancing themselves from the plant’s infamous relative, marijuana.
They also tout the benefits of industrial hemp on the environment, local businesses that make products with the plant’s fibers or seeds, and farmers who would have another crop to add to their rotation.
“Our legislators really need to get on board and quit acting like it’s a drug, like people are going to smoke it and get high,” said Michelle Van Winkle, a board member at the Iowa Hemp Association. “They are putting limitations on science and medicine, when they don’t even understand it.”
Industrial hemp received a boost in 2014, when the farm bill allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to cultivate or conduct research as part of a pilot program.
Since the law went into effect, at least 30 states, including Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois, have passed legislation related to the weedy plant, the National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated.
In Iowa, it remains illegal to grow hemp.
State Rep. John Forbes, an Urbandale Democrat who works as a pharmacist, introduced a bill in 2015 legalizing hemp production in Iowa, but it languished in the state Legislature. He said he would consider another attempt as soon as this session.
“As more and more legislators become educated in this area of industrial hemp and know that it’s not the same thing as medical marijuana, I think they are opening up to this possibly being a crop here in the state of Iowa,” he said. “I’m more optimistic now than I was 18 months ago when that legislation was filed.”
Industrial hemp has a long history in the United States. It was a key component in production of paper, clothing and ropes during colonial times.
Thomas Jefferson, who developed a machine to process hemp in 1815, and George Washington were among its most outspoken supporters.
The crop experienced a resurgence during World War II when the federal government instituted an emergency program to encourage farmers to produce hemp to help in the country’s war efforts.
To spur interest in 1942, the Agriculture Department produced the short film “Hemp for Victory” to educate producers about best growing practices and uses of the plant.
Hemp production surged from about 1 million pounds before the war to more than 150 million pounds on 146,200 harvested acres in 1943, according to the USDA. Iowa grew an estimated 40,000 acres when U.S. output was at its peak.
But production waned after the war. Production plunged to 3 million pounds on 2,800 harvested acres in 1948, and by the late 1950s the USDA said recorded production had ended.
In 1970, hemp, a member of the cannabis family, was placed on the list of controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, because of its close connection to marijuana. It remains tightly regulated.
Unlike the marijuana plant, hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient responsible for causing high-inducing effects.
“From a historical perspective, there is good reason why if other states are exploring it it would make sense that Iowa would be one that would, just because of the history we have with the crop,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist.
Hart said industrial hemp “has potential” in Iowa, but it likely would remain a niche crop covering several tens of thousands of acres, similar to wheat production in Iowa that is grown on roughly 25,000 acres in the state.
“I could see industrial hemp being that sort of size, where it would be a crop that sort of fills in around the edges of a field but doesn’t dominate the landscape,” he said.
U.S. companies that use hemp in their products are allowed to import it — much of it from Canada.
Today, hemp is used in more than 25,000 products ranging from textiles and automotive to furniture, paper, body products and construction materials.
The Iowa Hemp Association has estimated annual sales of products containing the material in the United States increased from more than $400,000 in 2010 to about $600,000 in 2014.
Proponents of industrial hemp say it prevents soil erosion, needs minimal pesticides and absorbs heavy metals and other impurities in the soil. Farmers benefit from improved yields.
Growing hemp can increase corn and soybean yields the following year by an average of six and four bushels per acre, respectively, according to data from the Iowa Hemp Association.
“If we can’t grow it in our state, why can we import it into our state and use if for industry?” Van Winkle said. “Why not let farmers grow the hemp and let them capitalize and make money on that?”
Forbes acknowledged that even if a bill passed the Iowa Legislature, it would be another two years before Iowa State University or another school could begin growing test plots. Then it would take a couple more years for a small slice of Iowa’s farmers to apply to raise industrial hemp.
“We’re a fairly long ways away from getting a program in the state up and running,” he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation supports commercializing industrial hemp production and having it regulated by the Agriculture Department, instead of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Dale Moore, executive director of public policy with the Farm Bureau, said for the market to be attractive for agricultural producers, it needs to be financially lucrative compared with corn, soybeans and other crops, and there needs to be an established network in place for hemp once it is harvested.
“It has to be a stable enough market that if I’m going to devote part of my farming operation to this other crop, then I need to be able to (move) it and it can’t be more than 200 miles away,” said Moore, whose grandfather and great-grandfather grew hemp during World War I and World War II. “That’s part of what we’re challenged with on some of these (new crops.) There is great promise there.”
Studies conducted by the Agriculture Department and universities across the country have found that while hemp may have a future, there are factors that likely will prevent it from being a major player in American agriculture.
One report from the USDA highlighted “uncertainty about long-run demand for hemp products and the potential for oversupply.”
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded in 2004 that hemp production “is not likely to generate sizable profits” and could be hurt by yield variability, a lack of harvesting innovations and processing facilities in the United States, as well as challenges transporting the bulky material.
Little changed nearly a decade later when in 2013 the University of Kentucky noted that despite early positive returns, “it does not appear that anticipated hemp returns will be large enough to entice Kentucky grain growers to shift out of grain production.”
Justin Dammann a corn and soybean producer from Essex, said he would consider growing industrial hemp in light of low prices for corn, soybean and wheat.
“When there is no money in corn and soybeans at this point it’s not going to be hard to find growers,” he said. “As a (producer) we are always looking for premium-based markets that are suitable for our environment.”