A crop whose time has come

Ryan Marquardt is a fifth-generation Madison County farmer and the Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 25. -promoted by desmoinesdem

What would you say to a crop that grows well in Iowa, has the potential for significantly higher profit margins, and can be used for everything from building material to cosmetics to food? Industrial hemp is the answer, and Iowa is no stranger to it.

During World War II, Iowa grew tens of thousands of acres as a “victory crop” for the war effort. Although hemp was effectively pushed out of the market in 1937 by the Marijuana Tax Act and banned in the 1970s, supply disruptions forced the United States to create special permits and push farmers to raise hemp. The remnants of that production period still persist in ditches and fence rows across Iowa.

Industrial hemp has been a victim of its own versatility as a crop. Just like field corn, sweet corn, and popcorn are all the same plant species, hemp and marijuana are technically the same species. It is the use, applications, and minor genetic variation that defines their varieties. Industrial hemp’s uses include stalk fiber for building materials, paper, textiles, plastics, and animal bedding. Seed from the plant can be consumed by livestock or processed for human consumption. Oil can also be extracted from the seed for use in food, cosmetics, or paint.

Contrary to popular belief, hemp is genetically very different from marijuana. Marijuana has a roughly twenty times more Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC (the part of marijuana that results in a “high”) than industrial hemp. Under cultivation, industrial hemp is grown for seed and stalk, not leaf matter, and is planted very densely to encourage thin stalks and height. For marijuana cultivation, the plant is spaced much wider to encourage leaf growth.

The stars are aligning for industrial hemp to get started again in Iowa and across the nation. In the 2014 Farm Bill, provisions were added that shielded state industrial hemp research programs from federal interference, because current federal laws do not distinguish between hemp and marijuana. At least 34 states have passed legislation to allow for industrial hemp production, with 27 states creating and allowing industrial hemp research plots and pilot programs.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is set to roll out a bill that would legalize industrial hemp production and classify it as a commodity crop. This would reclassify hemp under federal law so it is no longer a controlled substance, allowing growers to be allocated federal dollars for cultivation and to compete for federal grants. Last week, the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2398, titled the “Iowa Industrial Hemp Act,” on a unanimous bipartisan 49-0 vote, and sent the bill on to the Iowa House. This bill would create the Industrial Hemp Commodity Program, administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Industrial Hemp Production Program, administered by the Board of Regents.

The Iowa House needs to take up this legislation and pass it this year. Other states are making gains in hemp research, while we have been sitting on the sidelines. There is a lot of research to do in developing this new crop, from seed to production and processing.

Iowa’s farm economy could use a real shot in the arm. With farmers facing a fourth year of declining net farm income, a brewing trade war with China, potential declines in ethanol demand from the rising number of electric vehicles set to hit the roads in the coming decade, now is the perfect time to shake things up a bit, and now is the perfect time for industrial hemp research. Don’t let this bill stall out in the Iowa House; contact your representative and tell them to push Speaker Linda Upmeyer to support all options on the table for Iowa Agriculture, or contact the Speaker directly at linda.upmeyer@legis.iowa.gov.

Editor’s note: On April 11, an Iowa House Ways and Means subcommittee recommended passage of Senate File 2398.

UPDATE from desmoinesdem: James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the House subcommittee hearing.

Jacob Swanson of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship warned that hemp is a Schedule I controlled substance that is illegal to transport hemp across state lines.

He also said that the department does not have the lab capacity to take on the required testing of industrial hemp. Swanson estimated it would cost the department more than $160,000 for the appropriate equipment, in addition to new staff costs.

[Republican State Representative Lee] Hein, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, signed off on the bill, but said he has several questions. Although it was approved by the Senate 49-0, Hein doubts it will win House approval this year.

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  • To further make the Iowa case for industrial hemp...

    …it would potentially be helpful to talk about its environmental impacts as a crop. Corn is notoriously “leaky” and is a major reason Iowa waterways are full of nutrient pollution and silt. It doesn’t help that most cornfield soil has low organic content and poor structure, which means it can’t hold water, nutrients, or itself. I’m guessing that industrial hemp must be better for soil and water than corn because corn sets a low bar. But I don’t really know..

    • Environmental & General Musings

      Corn is a very “leaky” crop. Unfortunately, there is not a wealth of research out there comparing cropping systems and nutrient outflows. Logically though, if you are using less fertilizer to grow industrial hemp, then you are going have less wash away with soil or seep into waterways through drainage tile. There are additional environmental benefits as well via reduced insecticide usage, because of the plants natural resistances, and reduced herbicide use because of the plants ability to out compete weeds.

      I focused on economic issues and the possibilities for further processing, because I saw those arguments as carrying the most weight with legislators. With the farm economy in a soft spot and with no foreseeable improvement on the horizon, now seems as good a time as any to get into the research game. With industrial hemp, we have a crop that has the possibility for higher profit margins (partially because of reduced inputs), and a crop that could spawn many accompanying manufacturing and processing industries. Other states are making strides in figuring this crop out, while we continue to sit on out hands. This legalization is smart economic development in Iowa, and it is an investment in Iowa agriculture’s future.

      • Makes a lot of sense to me

        Thanks very much, Ryan. I just did a little checking online and of course you are right, the chemical inputs for industrial hemp are far less than those of corn.

        Ultimately, Iowa will need massive cover crop use and/or extended crop rotations to have cleaner water, and industrial hemp can’t solve that problem. But it certainly won’t contribute to the problem as much as corn, and the current bans on industrial hemp production are just ridiculous. Thank you for working for saner policies.

  • Sen. McConnell (R-KY) introduces new hemp legislation