When you think of the top cash crops grown in Wyoming, some people may immediately think of hay, sugar beets or wheat. But when you mention the idea of hemp becoming a top ag producer in the state, critics might say agriculture in Wyoming has gone to pot. Albin-based farmer Ron Rabou strongly disagrees.
"Comparing hemp and marijuana is like comparing a husky and a greyhound", Rabou said. "They're both dogs, but genetically, scientifically, physically, they're completely different. Hemp and marijuana are cousins. Hemp is a crop that looks like marijuana, but hemp is grown for fiber or food, marijuana is grown for the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). So the bud on the marijuana plant produces the THC. Marijuana plants are all female plants and pollination destroys the quality. Hemp plants are both male and female plants and pollination is necessary. Where marijuana plants contain approximately 15 to 20 percent THC, hemp contains just .3 percent or less THC."
Despite the difference in physical appearance, the issue lies within the trace of THC found in the hemp plant. That is how the plant was included as a Schedule 1 drug in 1937. Hemp was highly touted as the next billion-dollar industry in the 1930s, but that industry dried up when the Marijuana Act of 1937 was passed by the federal government. But new legislation from Washington D.C. has changed the rules.
In the 2014 farm bill, Congress provided a provision to allow individual states to pass legislation authorizing universities or departments of Agriculture to initiate pilot programs that further research, education and discovery of potential hemp markets.
"Hemp unrightfully was lumped into the Marijuana Act of 1937 and became a Schedule 1 substance," Rabou added. "We used to grow hemp all over this country. In the original colonies in America, it was illegal not to grow it. It was that important to our economy in those days. Hemp was used a lot during World War II, especially for ropes because it was able to stand up to salt water."
In the 2017 Wyoming state legislature Representative Bunky Loucks sponsored a bill to authorize Wyoming's department of Agriculture to develop these pilot programs. Representative Loucks worked very closely in developing the bill with land owners, Deb Palm-Egle and Josh Egle. Rabou was brought in later to help communicate the message effectively with Wyoming legislators. Once the proper information was presented about the economic potential for Wyoming's agriculture industry and it's economy in general, the bill proved to have extremely strong support. The bill passed the House on third reading 52 to 6 and then after much juggling passed the Senate on third reading 22 to 6. The bill was then transferred to the House for concurrence, passing 53 to 5 and moved on the governor's desk.
House Bill 230, Hemp farming, which is summarized, "An act relating to food and drugs; authorizing industrial hemp farming as specified; providing for hemp farming for research purposes; providing licenser requirements; authorizing enforcement and penalties; creating a misdemeanor; providing rule-making authority; providing an affirmative defense for marijuana prosecutions as specified; and providing for effective dates."
Rabou stated, "Representative Loucks did an outstanding job, representing the bill and Senator Meier was a true champion of ensuring the bill moved forward in the Senate."
Rabou is confident that the Governor will either sign the bill or allow it become law. Once it becomes law, it will be up to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to regulate and license hemp producers in the state.
"A lot of the arguments I heard at the legislature are really just misinformation," Rabou added. "A lot of people don't understand there is a difference. As a farmer, I have no interest in getting into the marijuana business, but I do have an interest, especially with the farm economy the way it is right now, in growing a crop that's good for our country, it's good for our ground and it's good for our economy. As producers we are always looking for ways to diversify. Hemp has a lot of potential in the fact that it can not only diversify the kinds of crops that we raise but can also help sustain our farms financially. The reason we pushed this so hard is that there's 32 other states that have already passed legislation to allow their farmers to grow it. So Wyoming is either going to hop on-board now or we're going to be waving at the caboose as it's driving by because the train has already passed."
Rabou believes the economic benefits from hemp could mean less dependence on the mineral industry and the energy industry and lead to more and more products being made in the U.S.
"We talk about economic diversity in our state all the time," Rabou said. "Agriculture is Wyoming's third-largest industry and we have a chance to really give agriculture a boost. In order to make industrial hemp economically feasible, you have to have a processing facility within a 100-mile radius from where it is grown. So you bring in processing facilities, you bring in testing facilities and you bring in jobs."
The benefits of using hemp to replace synthetic materials include hemp's biodegradable and recyclable status. Where many household items are currently being made from chemical-based materials, these items could someday be made organically with hemp.
"There's no other crop that's grown in the United States that has the economic potential that hemp has," Rabou added. "It can be used for so many different things. The research out there, says that we can make 25,000 to 30,000 different commercial products with hemp. We can't do that with any other crop in America."
Rabou said hemp is a crop that be grown anywhere in the U.S., on many different types of soil.
"Hemp can be grown in every state in the union and you can grow it on ground where you already grow wheat, corn or oats," Rabou said. "It doesn't take a lot of moisture. It's a very hearty crop. In fact, it grows in the ditches in Nebraska. We're the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't let our farmers grow it. It's a billion dollar industry in Canada."
Hemp's versatility is what draws the attention of so many interested businesses. For every acre of hemp used to make paper products, it takes four acres of trees.
"Hemp is a short-season crop that we can grow every year," Rabou explained. Hemp is ten times stronger than cotton and produces twice as much fiber per acre. About 50 percent of pesticides are used on cotton, but hemp is naturally resistant to some insects and diseases."
As a food source, hemp is very high in dietary fiber, high in B vitamins and it's high in protein.
"In fact, it's second only to soy beans in dietary fiber but it is more digestible in humans," said Rabou.
Not only is hemp a viable food product, but it can also be used to make a variety of plastics, textiles and construction materials. While all of this potential is just waiting to be tapped, Rabou says this is the time to take things slow and make sure everything that needs to be done is done correctly.
"I think it's really easy to get excited about something that has so much economic viability," Rabou said. "But we have to still proceed with caution. The Department of Ag is going to need some time to make this happen."
Rabou believes the best-case scenario will be for Wyoming producers to begin growing hemp in 2019.
He stated, "The bill has given the Department of Ag until July 1, 2018 to get the necessary permits. Thats all going to take time. They have to get testing facilities. They have to convert a lab, they have to get inspectors, those inspectors have to be educated. The department has to come up with rules and regulations. So, realistically... they won't be able to work with producers until about 2019."
Rabou went on to explain that, while agriculture is the third-largest industry in the state, behind energy/minerals and tourism, it's one of the most poorly-funded, accounting for about 0.8 percent of the state's budget. All of those testing facilities, employees and training will cost money, so hope is high to get a budget exception in place to pay for those items.
"If that exception does not come through and the Department of Ag doesn't have the funding they need for inspectors or lab facilities, then all of this effort is null and void," Rabou explained.
The next step in the process is to give the Department of Agriculture time to get all the necessary pieces of the puzzle in place.
Rabou concluded, "It has to apply for permits through the federal government. Then they'll work on the rules and regulations and visit with legislators to allow the budget exception so the department can convert existing facilities so they can test for THC, hire and train inspectors and make sure the program is being regulated correctly. The last thing you want to do when you are messing with the feds is to do it wrong. We can all be excited about this and we can all be enthusiastic about the potential, we can all say 'let's do this' but let's allow them to go through the process so when we plant it, we know the necessary precautions are in place to protect not only our state and our department of agriculture, but most importantly, to protect us as producers."
Rabou is part of Wyoming Farmers for Hemp. If you have further questions or need additional information, you can call him at 307-630-3616 or email him at email@example.com.