North Dakota’s hemp farmers are looking into the past for the cash crop of the future. Hemp played a large part in U.S. agricultural history, including its important role as a fiber used from colonial times through World War II.
But for modern farmers, the crop is relatively new, not to mention oftentimes taboo. In 2015, North Dakota became one of 30 states to pass industrial hemp legislation and one of seven to start planting industrial hemp research crops. With its reputation as a hub for agricultural research and ingenuity, the state has become the perfect location for hemp to regain popularity, uniting its past utility with present-day worth.
U.S. Hemp Sales on the Rise
Demand for U.S. hemp products has increased in recent years for a variety of reasons. Because hemp grows so fast and competes so well against weeds, it’s attractive to organic enthusiasts. Hemp is also widely used by vegetarians and vegans as a meat replacement, and health-conscious consumers are turning to hempseed and hemp oil as a great source for omega-3 fatty acids.
But for local growers, its numerous agricultural benefits from weed suppression to use in crop rotation have many reconsidering the value of this once obsolete crop; a first step in opening the doors to hemp’s resurgence in American agriculture.
Hemp as a Viable Alternative Crop
To further research the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp statewide, the North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA) developed the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. In 2016, a select group of five North Dakota farmers grew a combined 70 acres of the state’s first recorded commercial industrial hemp crop. Now in its second year, 34 producers will plant more than 3,100 acres in 2017.
“Industrial hemp may only be grown in North Dakota through the NDDA’s pilot program or by institutions of higher education,” says North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “A provision in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill gives authority to state departments of agriculture to create a pilot program that allows producers to grow industrial hemp for the purposes of agricultural or academic research. The program’s primary goal is to increase our knowledge of how industrial hemp fits into the existing agricultural landscape and economy.”
Based upon feedback from the pilot program’s growers thus far, Rachel Seifert-Spilde, NDDA plant protection specialist and industrial hemp program coordinator, says that “hemp is well suited to North Dakota’s climate, soils and farming techniques. Field trials had low-weed pressures, good plant stands, and lacked significant diseases and other pests.”
Seifert-Spilde found that the “pilot program growers felt comfortable growing the new crop and were able to plant, maintain, and harvest hemp without significant modifications to their current farming equipment and practices.” The end result was impressive seed yields and economic returns.
Looking to the future, North Dakota’s location near established Canadian hemp growers, seed suppliers and processors will prove instrumental as the international trade partner can share years of reliable research data.
Hempseed Harvest to Storefront
Healthy Oilseeds in Carrington started buying hempseed in September 2016 after the first crop was harvested. They began processing, cold press expelling and milling it into protein powder before finally marketing and shipping to businesses, both nationally and overseas.
Roger Gussiaas, president of Healthy Oilseeds, finds hemp still has a young, growing market, as many countries cannot legally grow hempseed, but can purchase it from other countries. All hempseed grown in the state must be devitalized or processed before leaving North Dakota.
“I think hemp will be a niche crop in North Dakota with more and more acres every year,” Gussiaas says. “North Dakota is well suited to be the largest producer of hempseed in America in the near future. We have a great climate for hempseed and our production costs are lower than most states.”
The company is already working to contract with about 31 growers in North Dakota and is the only permitted processor in the state, although some growers may process their own product.