While politicians debate the merits of legalizing recreational cannabis, many Illinois farmers are more interested in its biological cousin, hemp. Last year, Illinois lawmakers made it legal to grow hemp. Now the race is on for the state to put rules in place in time for the planting season. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Susan Stephens talks with some of the people pushing to get the hemp industry off the ground.
About 200 farmers – veterans and rookies alike -- gathered in Freeport to learn more about the realities of growing industrial hemp. They shuddered at horror stories about Wisconsin farmers who were forced to destroy their entire hemp crop last year because THC levels were too high. A good-natured heckler shouted, “Would crop insurance cover that?” He was met with guffaws.
But it’s a legitimate question because last year’s farm bill made hemp eligible for federal crop insurance, for disasters like drought and wildfire. Legalization is moving quickly for the crop that was considered patriotic back in World War II, then ran wild in roadside ditches.
But back to THC, the chemical that doomed those Wisconsin plants. It’s the psychoactive compound in cannabis that makes all the difference between an illegal drug and a respectable crop. The cannabis cousins hemp and marijuana are rich in compounds called cannabinoids. THC and CBD are two of those. THC will get you “high.” CBD will not. Hemp has very low levels of THC, so it’s useless as a psychoactive drug -- but it’s great for other uses, like fiber for rope and cloth, and seeds for oil or eating. But bringing back this much-loved/much-maligned leafy green stalk is not going to be easy. That’s why the University of Illinois Extension stepped in to host an industrial hemp production workshop at Highland Community College in Freeport.
Liz Rupel is with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, an organization that supports local farmers and the environment. Her group is a big proponent of the return of industrial hemp. She said, “It's going to be a wonderful additive as a commodity. It's going to help our farmers stay on the land, have a new cash crop because corn and bean prices have been so low and it's going to benefit our environment. We have a huge nutrient issue in Illinois. Growing hemp is going to help retain those nutrients and make sure they're not running down into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Phillip Alberti is Extension’s commercial agriculture educator for Stephenson, Winnebago, and Jo Daviess counties. He says interest is huge among farmers: standard crop prices have been low and markets uncertain. They’ve heard big things about hemp as a money-maker. Alberti says while the future of hemp is exciting, proceed with caution.
“This is going to be something that because it is so new,” he said. “It's going to take patience and making sure that we're doing the research. We really encourage farmers to make sure that if they decide to give this crop a shot, that they have a market for it at the end of the season, and that they're not investing too much. And even if they do and they're willing to give it a shot to to to drop the number of acres a little bit and don't put a whole bunch into production. Just be very conservative if that is the case. But again, we can't stress it enough. The expectations should be tempered for large scale production in Illinois in 2019.”
Another reason to stay calm – you can’t push the process. But you can be ready for it. The Illinois Department of Agriculture released its proposed rules for growing hemp back in December. There was a public comment period, now it’s in a 45-day review period that also includes a hearing by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR. Liz Rupel is confident there will still be time for farmers to plant hemp this season.
“I think the most important thing is to just be a little patient with the rules and regulations process,” she said. “We know that the Department of Agriculture has put in a lot of work, they've taken our public comments into consideration to ensure that we have less restrictive rules that are more fair and inclusive for farmers at large and small scales. So it all is just going to boil down to if JCAR passes those rules, and then we'll see applications hopefully opening up sometime in April. We could maybe see that being April 16 or soon after.”
So what’s in the proposed rules? Specifics could change, but it looks like anyone who wants to grow hemp would have to get a license from the state – plus another license if they want to become a processor. A grower’s license could cost $1000 for three years. Hemp could be grown indoors or out. Anyone with a felony or drug-related misdemeanor within the past five years can’t get a license. And growing operations would be inspected at least once a year – and fined $10,000 if their THC levels are too high.
The rules are similar to Wisconsin’s: the state to the north is moving into the second year of a hemp farming pilot program. Phillip Alberti says there are practical lessons to be learned from Wisconsin’s program.
“The biggest thing I can say about this is finding a good source of certified seed and also where to go with the crop once you've grown it,” Alberti said. "That has been a huge concern and a problem in Wisconsin, even though they've had a year ahead of us, a lot of the producers have had issues with where to go with it once they grew it. And so it's going to be a learning process. But if there's anything we've learned from producers in the Midwest, is that they are very creative, and they work together to solve these types of problems. So we're hoping that as soon as this legislation gets sorted out, and producers can start putting this in the ground, we'll get some of those answers. But we love the encouragement and the excitement that we're seeing, but you also have to temper expectations going into 2019.”
Nancy Brannaman says she’s tired of low commodity prices for her soybeans. She lives in Iowa, but her family farm is in LaSalle County. She says she didn’t know much about hemp before the Extension’s workshop. But she learned. She says she didn’t know the three different directions a hemp farmer could go – growing it for grain, for fiber, and the most lucrative hemp product, CBD oil, especially if it’s organic. And Brannaman has another idea to explore: biofuel. She thinks it might be an easier use of hemp than trickier care and processing of plants for CBD oil.
Brannaman says the biggest challenge for growers may be building a market for their product and putting together a network of processors. She sees it as an opportunity for farmer cooperatives. U of I Extension educator Phillip Alberti is on the same page. “It's going to take a network, it's going to take farmers doing what they've always done in the Midwest, and that's working together and solving problems. Farming is not easy because, you know, if it was, everyone would be a farmer.”
Liz Rupel of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance agrees. She says what the industry will need to survive is its own processing, which in turn will keep the profits here in Illinois. She says farmer-led cooperatives will make family farms stronger. The burgeoning industry is a little like the hemp plant itself.
“This is a plant that's not like our corn and beans where we can leave them and just put some nutrients on and just leave them for the year and then go harvest them,” she said. “This is something that we need to pay attention to. And we need to mother a little bit just to make sure it's going to grow. So I would say start small, you can do it.”
So after decades of waiting for the return of a much-hyped super-crop, growers-in-waiting are just going to have to wait a little longer before they can apply for their hemp licenses. So now it’s time to finalize that research: do they want to grow hemp strains for food, fiber, or CBD oil? How many acres? Where will they buy their seed? How much can they afford to gamble? There’s a growing number of groups they can turn to for advice now, including the U of I Extension, the Illinois Hemp Grower’s Association, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and the Illinois Farmers Union.