Drivers on Missouri’s roadways have grown accustomed to passing miles and miles of corn and soybean fields. In 2019, travelers may notice a new and unusual plant growing in fields across the state: industrial hemp. Federal and state laws were passed in 2018 that will lift restrictions that prevented farmers from growing the crop for decades.
Industrial hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that, by law, contains less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound in marijuana known as THC. While industrial hemp can’t get you high, the raw material can be used in thousands of products from textiles to cosmetics.
Missouri was once a leader in hemp production, growing an estimated 38,000 tons from the 1850s to the 1870s. But farmers lost enthusiasm for the plant as laws were passed to tax marijuana. And, in 1971, the Controlled Substance Act banned the growth of hemp completely.
Missouri in 2019 looks at issues important to Missouri business for the year ahead.
In 2014, the Obama administration passed a law that allowed states to establish pilot programs to determine the value of industrial hemp as an alternative cash crop. Earlier month, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill and officially removed the crop from the list of controlled substances. That means farmers can legally grow hemp for the first time in several decades.
“That’s going to basically open the doors,” said Hyatt Bangert, founder of the Midwest Industrial Hemp Association, a St. Louis-based trade group. “Now it will open up as a wide-open agribusiness industry.”
Missouri lawmakers also passed a bill during the 2018 legislative session initiating a hemp pilot program for interested farmers during the 2019 growing season. However, individual farmers can only grow hemp on a maximum of 40 acres, and only 2,000 combined acres will be farmable statewide.
“I think the 2,000-acre maximum they have now is not nearly enough for what the demand out there would be for people getting into the hemp space,” Bangert said. “We certainly don’t want to see Missouri fall behind because of more restrictive rules than what the federal program is going to mandate.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture says a draft of the rules and regulations for the pilot program will be published on Jan. 2, followed by a 30-day public comment period.
“We think it’s critically important to have gathered feedback from potential growers to promulgate reasonable rules that will build a program Missouri can be proud of,” said Sami Jo Freeman, a spokesperson for the agriculture department.
Hemp, imported mostly from China and Canada, is in nearly 25,000 products that rack up $600 million in annual sales across the U.S. Now that the crop is legal to grow, Missouri farmers can keep some these profits in their pockets.
“You can literally make thousands of products from it,” Bangert said. “It’s really what I call a docile market because we’re relying on completely imported hemp.”
The most vocal opponents of legalizing industrial hemp are concerned about the plant’s proximity to marijuana. Some worry law enforcement will not be able to distinguish the crop from marijuana being grown illicitly in hemp fields. However, that has not proved a problem in the countries and states that have established hemp growing programs.
The Midwest Industrial Hemp Association plans to develop regional processing plants where growers and manufacturers can work together to develop products. Bangert says the wide array of uses for industrial hemp could provide a valuable alternative cash crop for farmers who have grown exclusively corn and soybeans for generations.
“It has a lot of industry potential, which provides a lot of price stability,” Bangert said. “Right now, the row crop farmers that are doing corn and beans are kind of seeing a declining value in the price because there is more supply on the global market.”
Missouri farmers endured a rough year in 2018 as drought and trade wars severely limited the profitability of this year’s harvest. Bangert believes the hemp industry has the potential to provide a resurgence for farming communities in 2019 and beyond.
“(There is) huge economic development potential for the rural towns that have been so blighted by lack of industry,” Bangert said.
The success of Missouri’s industrial hemp program in 2019 is entirely dependent on “how quickly we can organize a program and build infrastructure in the state,” according to Bangert. If all goes to plan, however, the growth of an industrial hemp industry in Missouri has the potential to be one of the biggest agricultural stories of 2019.