Josh Helberg is ready to plant hemp — but not for the reasons you think.
A construction company owner who also owns farmland in west-central Minnesota, Helberg's interest in the crop is purely industrial.
"I'm committed to grow on our farmland and with all the benefits and uses, it's going to be incredible," he said. "I'm also a general contractor and I'm excited about all the different building products that can come from industrial hemp."
Helberg will get his chance this spring.
The state just received a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for an industrial hemp pilot project. Agriculture officials here say they'll soon begin looking for farmers and others who want to plant hemp test plots, the first legally planted hemp in the state in more than half a century.
The Minnesota Legislature last year ordered the state agriculture department to set up an industrial hemp pilot project. It's been a challenge because the federal government lists hemp as a controlled substance, an illegal drug.
The DEA permit was a "big step in the process," said Geir Friisoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's plant protection division.
Friisoe said he's working on a request for proposals so people can contract with the state to grow hemp test plots, although they'll still need a permit to import hemp seeds from Canada.
"My hope is that we will have a few acres planted in Minnesota in 2016," Friisoe said. "I think just given some of the challenges we've had I think that's a good start to getting this off the ground."
There are people waiting to grow hemp in Minnesota, but expectations remain low. Time is short to get seeds for this spring. Anyone contracting with the state to grow hemp this year will need to provide land, security and a research plan.
Growers will also have to pay for the seeds.
"This is just going to be a yield analysis year for us in the state of Minnesota," said Ken Anderson, who runs a Wisconsin company that develops hemp building products and another that supplies hemp seeds. "We just need to see how the cultivars we work with perform in this growing area."
Commercial hemp production is still illegal in the U.S. But nearly 30 states have passed some kind of industrial hemp law. According the the National Conference of State Legislatures, the count is 27, not including Minnesota.
North of the border, Canadian farmers have been growing hemp since it was legalized in 1998. Last year farmers grew more than 80,000 acres of hemp, and Canadian companies exported millions of dollars in hemp products.
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, Canada's largest hemp food company, processes about two-thirds of the hemp grown in Canada. Last year 125 farmers grew 55,000 acres for the company.
"We're seeing more and more farmers, in fact this year we had more in farmers than we had contracted acres, said Kelly Saunderson, the company's public affairs manager.
Manitoba Harvest sells millions of dollars' worth of hemp food products every year in Canada and the U.S. Top sellers are seed and oil, which contain high levels of healthy fats. But the market is still very small, Saunderson said.
"We actually recently did some consumer research that showed even with all the growth in the industry, here in Canada only 3 percent of consumers have tried hemp food and in the States it was only 1 percent," she said.
Saunderson says Canadian hemp producers support legalization of the crop in the U.S. to help expand the North American market.
Law enforcement officials have raised concerns hemp fields could hide marijuana plants. Saunderson contends that hasn't been a problem in Canada since the cousin plants look very different and cross pollinating with hemp destroys the potency of marijuana.
The hemp industry is also closely regulated.
For example, the limit in hemp plants for THC, the chemical that causes the marijuana high, is 0.3 percent of the weight of leaves and flowers. By comparison, marijuana plants often have a THC level of 5 percent or higher.
Anderson, the Wisconsin hemp business owner, believes the federal ban on hemp production will go away within a few years. That's why he's spending time and money to be on the ground floor of the hemp industry.
"If you would have asked me that same question five years ago we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. But now that a few states have come on board it's just one after another, boom, boom, boom."
Anderson is testing products like hemp reinforced concrete.
Helberg, who hopes to plant hemp on his acres in Stevens County, also sees its potential in reinforcing concrete and insulation and in products such as erosion control mats for landscaping. The market for those products is still developing.
Friisoe doesn't think hemp will ever be huge, but he's interested in seeing how much interest there is this spring.
Until federal officials remove hemp's designation as an illegal substance, it will be difficult for the plant to get a firm foothold, he said.
Still, he said he believes it could be a good alternative crop for Minnesota farmers. "I think the potential is there."
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