Amber waves of hemp in Southwest Colorado have not materialized since production was legalized under Amendment 64 in 2012.
But the state’s 158 registered hemp growers have managed to plant about 1,000 acres and will now get research help from Colorado State University. Sharing of campus seed stock has legal hurdles, however.
This summer, CSU was approved for field testing of hemp by the Colorado Department of Agriculture under a historic provision in the 2014 Farm Bill.
And its Southwest Colorado research center in Yellow Jacket expects to participate.
“We made the list for hemp research next year and are waiting on guidelines,” said Abdel Berrada, research manager for the center. “The state approval is for field testing only. CSU’s request for greenhouse testing was denied.”
Several farmers in Montezuma and La Plata counties have obtained permits with the Department of Agriculture to grow hemp, a non-drug cousin of marijuana grown for industrial products, including clothing, construction material and fuel. But limited seeds and growing experience led to poor yields locally, said Sharon Stewart of Hemp Talks during a meeting with Montezuma County officials.
“Germination rates were below 10 percent, and one of the growers was randomly tested by the state. He passed but had to pay for the test,” she said.
Hemp strains cannot have more that 0.3 percent THC content, the active ingredient in the drug strain of marijuana that reaches THC levels of 15 to 20 percent.
CSU’s help is welcomed, Stewart said, because small-time farmers can’t afford a lot of crop experimentation to determine which strain of hemp is ideal for the area.
While the state’s flagship agriculture university has maneuvered into position, farmers hoping to procure seeds from CSU have legal hurdles with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
“With our expertise in agriculture we can help to determine where hemp can fit in with the ag economy,” said CSU spokesman Mike Hooker. “But research needs funding partners. We will also continue to surf the legal ins and outs.”
Those ins and outs are the availability of seeds and the DEA’s interpretation of new federal hemp laws.
CSU’s permit is allowed under Sec. 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill, which specifically allows for hemp to be grown by universities and ag departments in states that have legalized it.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also has been approved for hemp research under the bill.
The Farm Bill allows limited hemp research for at least five years “notwithstanding any other federal law.” It is the first time hemp has been legalized at the federal level in 50 years. The U.S. Controlled Substances Act includes hemp as a Schedule I banned substance along with LSD and heroin.
Kentucky is at the forefront of the fledgling hemp industry but is battling with the DEA about farmer access to seeds.
This summer, the DEA stopped a 250-pound shipment of hemp seeds at the Canadian border heading to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. A judge later backed the KDA, but the DEA required that a permit be obtained.
The DEA says the Farm Bill’s narrow focus on hemp research precludes use of the seed by private individuals not affiliated with approved institutions.
Regarding a new cash crop in Colorado, nothing will happen overnight, said Berrada of the Yellow Jacket station. A hemp economy may not even be practical.
“Whether it will do well here and make farmers money is questionable, but we want to find out if it’s possible,” he said.
The keys to a successful hemp economy are figuring out the right varieties and establishing local processing plants, Stewart said.
“Colorado is in the game. Locally, it would not take too much to get the Dove Creek biodiesel plant up and running to press hemp seed for fuel,” she said. “The cultivar research is really important so we know what will work with our conditions.”