There's a lot of expectation invested in a few acres of hemp growing on a hill overlooking the small town of Callaway on the edge of the White Earth Reservation.
"I'm kinda nervous," says tribal secretary-treasurer Tara Mason. "I don't think I've been this concerned about how a crop is doing on White Earth until we planted these."
Mason is nervous because the tribe has nearly $100,000 invested in this project and because she sees so much potential for economic development on this remote reservation.
"I think we've got a whole micro-economy that can be surrounded by hemp," she said. "You know, this could really be the start of a lot of great things we can build on in the future."
Hemp is grown for seeds or fiber. The seeds and the oil produced by crushing the seeds are a growing part of the food market.
"We are seeing growth in domestic hemp sales of 10-15 percent a year steadily as people discover that this is one of few grains that has complete protein," said University of Minnesota professor George Weiblen, who has been studying hemp genetics for more than a decade. "It also has an excellent fatty acid profile, omega-3, omega-6 fatty acids that are popular for heart health."
It's also genetically related to marijuana, a connection that's made widespread legal production in the United States nearly impossible. While hemp plants hold only a small amount of THC, the compound that gives marijuana it's narcotic effect, the federal government still considers hemp a controlled substance, an illegal drug.
Three years ago, Congress legalized industrial hemp for research purposes, but only under the watch of a university or a state agriculture department.
Last year, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency gave the Minnesota Department of Agriculture permission to start a hemp pilot project without running afoul of federal drug laws. It required the hemp seed be imported under permits from the state Agriculture Department. Six participants grew 40 acres.
This year, Minnesota agriculture officials received 42 applications for more than 2,000 acres. That included the tract at White Earth, which used seed imported from Canada and Europe. Although White Earth is a sovereign nation, tribal officials say they are following all state and federal regulations related to hemp.
Weiblen is overseeing hemp variety trials around the state including on the White Earth Reservation where there are 12 varieties of hemp bred for seed production. He's certain hemp can be successfully grown across Minnesota.
"It's ready to go. It's suited to our region. We are halfway through our trial in Minnesota and we're seeing plants doing very well," said Weiblen. "Right now the main limiting step for hemp cultivation in Minnesota is the processing."
Processing requires mills to chop plant stocks and extract fibers, and squeeze oil from the seeds.
White Earth is considering buying a press to crush seeds for hemp oil, but they see perhaps more potential in the taller, more robust plants growing next to the seed test plot.
"We have five varieties," explains White Earth food sovereignty coordinator Zachary Paige, standing next to hemp plants that are about 7 feet tall. "It's amazing. I've heard there's 22,000 products you can make from hemp, so it's pretty limitless."
The hemp stalk has long fibers a bit like wool on the outside and a woody material inside. The long fibers are commonly used to make rope and fabric.
Right now, most of that market demand is filled with cheap Chinese imports. And those long fibers are difficult to extract
"So we're going to start with the easier products, the hempcrete, the fiber board," said Paige.
Hempcrete is concrete made with chopped-up hemp fibers. It's lighter and stronger than traditional concrete. Fiber board combines wood chips and hemp in a plywood-like panel.
The challenges of processing hemp have tribal officials cautious about the payoff from hemp, but they envision making construction materials and creating much needed jobs.
"If you can integrate the hemp industry along with the building industry, mankind is always building," said Douglas Lee, a student at the White Earth tribal college who's helping create a hemp industry economic development plan. "That's one need that's never going to run out is building material."
Hemp also fits well with the White Earth Nation vision for sustainable food production, said food sovereignty coordinator Paige. These hemp plots have had no added fertilizer or pesticides so it would fit well with an organic crop rotation.
"Edible beans, native corn, hemp, alfalfa. This kind of rotation is an organic rotation that would be profitable in a value added market," said Paige.
White Earth chair Terry Tibbetts says creating industry around hemp would be a good way for White Earth to use its limited resources. He says because land is a renewable resource the tribe can use it to build a sustainable economy.
"The only thing that we have is gaming. So you know, we're taking a look right now and diversifying," Tibbetts said. "Because we don't know how long Indian gaming is going to be around."
Editors note: A previous version of this story misquoted Douglas Lee. The current version is correct.
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