Industrial hemp's future as a crop in Colorado awaits federal action

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— If industrial hemp can grow on the plains of Manitoba, it can grow in semi-arid Northwest Colorado, Anndrea Hermann said Tuesday.

Hermann is recognized as one of the foremost experts in North America on the cultivation of industrial hemp for its valued fiber and oil, and she will be teaching a groundbreaking e-course on the subject at Oregon State University this fall.

“Can it grow there?” Hermann asked rhetorically during a phone interview with the Steamboat Today on Tuesday. “Absolutely. Do we know the cultivars — the varieties and parental lines that will do the best? No, we don’t. We’d have to test them. But in Manitoba, hemp grows with 8 to 13 inches of (annual moisture) without any worries. We have dryland production in Manitoba and we get our share of winter.”

Industrial hemp is distinctly different from the type of cannabis sativa that produces the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that pot smokers covet. Industrial hemp does not yield significant amounts of THC. In other words, when grown properly to take advantage of the plant’s practical uses, industrial help won’t make people high.

Steamboat Springs receives on average of 24.5 inches of precipitation, and Hayden, with a milder climate, receives 18.6 inches annually. A research paper done at Oregon State in 2008 suggested that hemp thrives in climates with at least 25 to 30 inches of water, fertile loam soils and extended growing seasons.

But the study also reports that young hemp plants can tolerate some frost, and Hermann said the plant’s deep taproots help with its water needs.

Hemp was an important industrial crop in the United States during World War II when its tough fibers were relied upon heavily for cordage, or rope. It subsequently was banned by the federal government along with marijuana, but the crop has come to the forefront of public awareness in Colorado since voters’ passage of Amendment 64 in November legalized industrial hemp at the same time that it legalized the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.

More recently, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill intended to regulate industrial growing of hemp, and Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law at the end of May. The potential of the industry and for Colorado to become the sole state producing hemp domestically garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union submitted a position piece that was published in the Steamboat Today in April. It pointed out that the new state law regulating production of industrial hemp here requires that crops produced in Colorado go to processing plants in the state. In addition to rope, hemp is used in a wide range of products, from clothing to cosmetics. Keeping hemp processing in state should create jobs beyond agriculture, the Farmers Union pointed out.

Farmers Union spokesman Mick McAllister said Tuesday that the biggest barrier to reviving industrial hemp as a cash crop in Colorado isn’t the amount of available annual moisture but the continuing federal ban on the plant. The logical place to explore the varieties of hemp that could thrive on the eastern and western slopes is in the agronomy labs at Colorado State University. But from universities to individual growers, it’s difficult to assume the risk that they will be cut off from USDA funding programs and subsidies if they cultivate the crop.

“No one is coming right out and saying it, but Colorado State can’t do it; it would jeopardize their federal money,” McAllister said. “Until the federal legislation is passed that legalizes industrial hemp nationally, chances are it won’t get the macro attention we need to make it a viable crop.”

The Farmers Union is lobbying actively for decriminalization of industrial hemp at the federal level, and bills were introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate late this winter.

Has anyone ever farmed hemp in Routt County?

“Not that I can recall,” former longtime Routt County Extension Agent Sam Haslem said Tuesday. “I grew up as a cowboy in Moffat County. I remember using ropes from the Plymouth Cordage Company (founded in Plymouth, Mass., in 1824). I’m still a cowboy.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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