Could hemp be a savior for Kansas agriculture?

Clark Kelman raises corn and soybeans just like his father and grandfather did on the High Plains of Kansas.

There isn’t anything wrong with that, the fifth-generation Haskell County farmer said. But with water levels declining on their southwest Kansas farm and the downturn in the farm economy, he envisions growing something different.

Kelman wants to be one of the first in the state to plant industrial hemp.

Kansas lawmakers passed legislation this session creating a hemp research program—now one of 39 states to remove barriers to its production. And, in mid-May, Kelman and other interested farmers, county officials and others, traveled to the Kansas Department of Agriculture in Manhattan to give regulators ideas on how to implement it.

“I’ve grown corn and beans and milo and wheat like my grandpa did, my great-grandpa and my dad did,” Kelman said. “For me, to get my foot in the door with a new product, that would be fun.”

But as Kelman and other producers would learn, growing hemp isn’t as easy as scattering hemp seed across farm fields and watching it grow. While it’s making money for some growers in states like Colorado and Kentucky, experts warned, like with any new crop, there is risk.

“They say that hemp will grow anywhere,” Brent Burchett, director of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s plant division, said during the meeting Kelman attended. “It isn’t true. The better the ground the better your crop is going to be.”


Growing interest

More than 150 people attended the three meetings May 11.

“I think the interest in hemp is indicated by the attendance here today,” said Chad Bontrager, the department’s agribusiness services director. “We don’t go anywhere in Kansas at this point, especially since the law passed a few weeks ago, where we don’t get inquiries about what this is going to look like here, what is the process.”

How to implement and regulate the program are questions state officials are grappling with after Kansas lawmakers gave the green light in April to begin the hemp pilot program in 2019, Bontrager said.

Up until five years ago, industrial hemp, which is close relative to marijuana, had been illegal to grow in the United States since World War II. The 2014 farm bill included a provision allowing states, through research institutions and departments of agriculture, to grow industrial hemp. While three-quarters of U.S. states, including Kansas, have enacted such laws there are still obstacles.

Only 19 states have planted acres of hemp, mostly in Colorado and Kentucky.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Bontrager said, later adding, “What we are looking forward to today is a set of questions that we need to answer.…feedback and questions regarding the legal framework we are going to be setting up.”


Growing industry

To help guide them through the process, Kansas agriculture officials called in the experts.

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Burchett, along with Mitch Yergert, the former director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry, talked with those in attendance about how their states implemented industrial hemp programs.

Kentucky farmers planted just 33 acres of hemp when the pilot program launched four years ago, Burchett said. This year, farmers are expected to grow more than 14,000 acres.

Yergert said acreage will be similar in Colorado this year.

Yergert spent the past five years developing the Colorado program before retiring this spring. This year, 432 registrants are growing hemp. He noted 76 percent of the farmers are doing so on 10 acres or less. 

“We do have people registered with 300 to 400 acres, but they are the exception,” he said.

Industrial hemp has potential, but it isn’t the savior for Kentucky’s diminishing tobacco industry, Burchett said. State ag officials are also exploring kenaf, a fiber plant, plus grain for the booming craft beer industry.

“We hope it may be a game changer, but to date, it is just another crop we are researching,” Burchett said. “It’s a crop our granddaddies grew, so we knew it would grow in Kentucky well. My grandfather grew industrial hemp during World War II.”

Some of the farmers growing hemp have found profit in three primary markets: grain, fiber and cannabidiol—or CBD, which is seen by many as a health aid, Burchett said.

This hemp-derived extract has the biggest profit margin, he said, showing figures that farmers are receiving an average $7.20 a pound. About 30 percent of Kentucky farmers are growing hemp for CBD and 30 percent are growing hemp for both CBD and grain.

In all, Kentucky hemp farmers were paid $7.5 million in 2017. Hemp created 81 full-time jobs and gross product sales totaled $16.7 million, Burchett said.

“We don’t expect anything to replace tobacco or be a miracle crop, but certainly this is another crop in our toolbox in Kentucky,” he said.

While Colorado and Kentucky are making headway into the industry, there is still much research to be done, such as better information on fertilizer rates, seeds per acre and water requirements, Yergert said.

“We have to figure all that out for different areas of the state, different areas of the country,” he said.


Establishing a program

Bontrager said the department must decide rules, fee structure, inspection, testing, hauling regulations, among other requirements.

Department staff also must assess how they will test plants for THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.

Industrial hemp typically contains less than 0.3 percent THC and does not produce a high. Federal law requires that growers stay within the threshold, Yergert said. However, if a hemp field is over the THC threshold, the field will be destroyed.

“This could be chopped up, disked up, burned—whatever is appropriate in your area,” Yergert said 

That doesn’t happen often, but it can, he said. In Colorado last year, about 700 acres were destroyed, or about 5 percent of the crop.

Bontrager said one question he fielded from a producer is how to recoup such a financial loss. There is no crop insurance for hemp at this time.

“I don’t know that we have that figured out,” he said. “What we do know is the law will not allow us to put that product into commerce or move it off the farm at that illegal THC level.”


Interest abounds

Christina Hett said she and her husband are interested in growing hemp on their Marion County farm.

“We are interested in finding an alternative to wheat, soybean and corn, the markets are bad,” she said. “So we are just being proactive and looking for alternatives to what we have going on right now.”

Hett said she learned a lot but has more questions. She is concerned about the potential for high licensing fees, plus the logistics of hauling the crop to a processor.

Fees could include an annual application process, fingerprinting and background checks.

Kelman said he isn’t deterred by the fees or the risk. His family is already vertically integrating their operation through a distillery in Dodge City.

He hopes to plant hemp next year.

If hemp uses less water than corn, it could help extend the life of the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer, he said. His family’s irrigation wells were pumping more than 1,000 gallons a minute when he was born. These days, the best wells on the farm are averaging 400 gallons a minute.

“If we can save any kind of water, we are ahead of the game,” Kelman said, adding, “Our biggest thing is this is a new product. And it is fun to get into something new.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].