Lisa Strang stands in her hemp field in Colorado. Strang and her husband, Jim, were among the nation's first growers to plant hemp, participating in a pilot program launched in 2014. Photo courtesy of Jim Strang
EVANSVILLE, Ind., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Congress's vote to remove a decades-long ban on industrial hemp opens the way for the rebirth of a thriving industry.
The move came as part of this year's farm bill, which has been approved by the House and Senate, awaiting President Donald Trump's signature to become law. That signature, expected to come this week, will remove hemp from the list of federally controlled substances.
The hemp plant is a close cousin to marijuana, with one major difference -- hemp does not contain enough of the psychoactive chemical THC to make people high. But the two plants look enough alike that when the government began taxing marijuana in 1937, hemp was included. Likewise, when marijuana was made a Schedule 1 controlled substance in 1970, hemp was again lumped in.
That decision crippled what could have become a booming industry, said Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.
The hemp plant has multiple uses, and nations where the plant is legal to grow have thriving markets, Miller said.
"It's said that hemp can be used in more than 25,000 products," said Erica McBride Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association. "On the face of it, that sounds like a gross exaggeration. But it's not."
Car manufacturers in Europe use hemp fibers to make bioplastic car parts. Builders use it in hempcrete, an alternative to concrete. Textile producers make hemp ropes, canvas, bedding and clothing. The plant's stalk can be used to make paper. The edible seeds are pressed into oils or ground into flour.
A few U.S. companies are importing hemp to make such products. Others have expressed interest in using hemp if it they could purchase it from American growers, Stark said.
The buzz has farmers are lining up to get in early on the nascent market.
"Tobacco farmers are jumping on board and they are serious," said Christian Grantham, whose business, Half Fill Farm in Tennessee, produces CBD oil from hemp seeds. "It is going to be the new cash crop of the South."
It's a similar story across the country. Hemp can be grown in almost every climate, Stark said. By spring, farmers from Oregon to North Carolina will be filling their fields with it, she said.
A few have a head start.
In 2014, Congress approved a hemp pilot program, which allowed states to grant a few growers permits to plant hemp. The program, which was part of the 2014 farm bill, was meant to test whether states could adequately regulate hemp cultivation to ensure farmers were not growing marijuana.
Forty-one states launched pilot hemp programs.
The decision to start growing hemp was a risky one. They could not get crop insurance on the federally banned plant, and with 80 years since the last farmer grew hemp, there was little information on what it needed to grow in any particular climate.
"We were one of the first ones," said Jim Strang, a hemp grower in Colorado. "So, we've kind of taken the brunt of everything."
Strang was lucky -- his land in Colorado was an ideal for hemp, he said. And his early success puts him in a good position to capitalize on the emerging market.
But agriculture experts warn that the rush to hemp won't necessarily spell easy money.
In Indiana, professors at Purdue University took part in the program in an effort to study the growth cycle of the plant.
"We were trying to understand what problems growers would face," said Janna Beckerman, a botany and plant pathology professor at Purdue.
There were many, the researchers found.
They struggled to get reliable seed. And the plants did not grow well during years with much rain.
"It won't be easy for growers," Beckerman said. "There will be good years and bad years."
Beckerman worries that the hype around hemp's legalization will encourage people to invest too much.
"People think they're going to make a lot of money in it," she said. "But it's just a crop, like any other. I don't want to be a downer. I look at hemp and I think there is a lot of potential. But, you're not going to throw out seeds and grow $100 bills."