HELENA – Farmers around Montana have begun experimenting with a new crop — hemp — since 2016.
Cary Kolstad, who farms near Ledger, outside Conrad, said he thought for years about growing it.
“There’s just a lot of things that can be done with it,” he said. “It’s always kind of baffled me why we could never grow it.”
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, but it contains only small amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. The various parts of the plant can be used to make things like textiles, paper, building materials and oils.
For decades, it was illegal to grow hemp in the United States as the federal government classified all forms of cannabis as controlled substances. But in 2014, Congress allowed states to begin strictly regulated pilot programs for growing hemp – defined as plants with no more than 0.3 percent THC.
When Montana began its pilot program in 2016, Kolstad was one of the first growers to sign up. He planted 100 acres the first year, and 300 acres the next.
“I was more than happy to jump on board with it,” he said.
Kim Phillips the owner of Plan-It Hemp in the Helena Valley, was another of the initial growers. She ran into difficulty as she tried to secure irrigation water for her crop.
Authorities initially refused to provide water from Canyon Ferry Reservoir because water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cannot be used to irrigate controlled substances.
She said she lost an entire year’s crop before eventually receiving a federal exemption.
“They ended up having to recognize that and know that we had done everything under the federal law as they had described,” she said.
Phillips said support from the Montana Department of Agriculture was key to getting the water she needed.
Ian Foley, the department’s hemp program coordinator, said the pilot program started with 14 growers and 525 acres cultivated. Last year, it had grown to 58 growers and nearly 22,000 acres, mostly in northeastern Montana and the Golden Triangle. This year, 70 growers have already applied.
“They’re traditional farmers all across the state that are used to producing wheat and barley and peas and lentils and growing alfalfa,” said Foley.
Now, hemp will be treated more like those other crops. Last year, as part of the federal farm bill, Congress approved removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. Federal oversight was moved from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The regulatory authority has transferred to an agency that farmers are more comfortable working with,” Foley said.
The Montana Department of Agriculture is now working on creating an updated plan for a full-scale hemp program. It would give growers a wider selection of seed varieties to choose from and layout testing requirements.
Leaders plan to submit the plan around Mar. 1. Federal authorities will decide whether to approve it within 60 days – in time for planting, which usually begins in late May or June.
There could be even more changes to come. State Sen. Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls) has introduced a package of bills to make it easier for Montana farmers to grow hemp.
Senate Bill 176 would allow the Department of Agriculture to develop a program for certifying Montana hemp, SB 177 would eliminate the requirement for growers to undergo a criminal background check, and SB 178 would exempt hemp processing equipment from property tax.
“This is our opportunity to get ahead of the curve and be a leader in the nation,” Jacobson said.
There are still some challenges for people growing such a new crop. The equipment to process the hemp plant into fiber or other useful products can be very expensive, and leaders say there hasn’t always been enough processing capacity to handle everything Montana farmers have grown.
“There’s a little bit of a gap there, from growing it to getting it into people’s hands to use,” Phillips said.
Foley said getting the state’s new hemp plan approved by federal authorities could be a first step to addressing those issues. He said, if Montana has a state program in full compliance with federal requirements, it will be a more attractive market for hemp processors.
The Montana Department of Agriculture will also soon ask hemp growers to vote on whether they want to contribute to a state hemp advisory committee. That group would pool resources from the growers to support research and marketing efforts.
State leaders say they’re optimistic about hemp’s future in Montana.
“There’s definitely a lot of momentum here,” said Department of Agriculture director Ben Thomas. “I know a lot of folks are excited.”
Kolstad said he’s talked to a number of farmers who have looked at hemp, but decided against growing it because of the legal uncertainties around it. He hopes these changes will clear up the questions around the industry.
“It’s not marijuana,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of with hemp.”
While many of the restrictions on hemp have been removed, it will still be more tightly regulated than other crops. Federal law still requires all growers and their growing locations to be registered.
You can find more information about Montana’s hemp program at the Department of Agriculture’s website.
Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News