It’s been about a month since the Colorado Department of Agriculture began accepting applications from residents wanting to be among the first hemp growers in the U.S., and the agency has thus far given the go-ahead on 20 of them.
Per regulations that took effect this year, the state department of agriculture is tasked with registering farmers who grow hemp, which is contrived from the cannabis plant.
Unlike marijuana, it doesn’t contain enough THC to be used as a drug.
Ron Carleton, the state’s deputy commissioner of agriculture, said farmers have shown a great deal of interest in the crop, which doesn’t require as much water as others and has a wide variety of uses, from fiberglass to cooking oil to fabric.
The U.S. is the world’s No. 1 importer of hemp, and Colorado hemp enthusiasts — including farmers young and old from across the state — see economic opportunity in being the first ones in the nation allowed to grow it commercially.
A number of local and national ag organizations have put their support behind hemp farming.
Under Colorado’s new laws, growers can cultivate the plant for research and development purposes — also recently authorized at the federal level by Congress — or for commercial purposes, which is still technically illegal under federal law.
Carleton said the state has received 25 applications, and of the 20 that have been approved, about half are for research and development, with the other half being for commercial growing.
Carleton added that he’s gotten a steady stream of inquiries on the topic of growing hemp, but he had no way to predict how many applications would come through.
“I didn’t know if we would get hundreds or just a few,” he said. “For us, it’s a novel program.”
Thus far, Weld County — the leader in ag production in Colorado, and ranking eighth nationally — is leading the state in approved applications.
Three businesses, approved for five applications all together, have the green light to cultivate hemp in Weld — Hemp Farm Colorado in Johnstown, approved for a commercial application; Hemp Farms of Colorado in Berthoud, approved for two research-and-development applications in Weld; and New West Genetics in Fort Collins, approved for a commercial application and a research-and-development application, both in Weld.
Mike Sullivan, with Hemp Farm Colorado, said he has leased about seven acres from land owners in Weld, and he plans to plant a crop this season to begin selling hemp seeds, which under federal law are illegal to import. He said despite concerns, he’s seen a great deal of interest in the crop among farmers, largely because the crop is resilient and has so many uses.
“Every farmer that I’ve talked to, their eyes get big,” he said. “They’re ready to jump on board.”
While the crop can be used for everything from carpet to cooking oil, Sullivan said he’s most excited about its medicinal purposes. Hemp contains high amounts of cannabidiol, or CBD, which some research suggests helps to quiet symptoms like chronic pain and seizures, Sullivan noted.
Marijuana also contains much lower levels of CBD and produces psychoactive side-effects because of THC, he said.
“We’re basically going to have all that medicinal product and none of the THC,” Sullivan said.
While there’s strong interest in the crop, the fact that hemp is still technically illegal under federal law leaves growers wondering if they’ll still be eligible for federal programs, like crop insurance for other crops they grow, and whether federally backed banks will deal with them.
As part of the $1 trillion farm bill passed earlier this year, members of Congress gave farmers in several states, including Colorado, the OK to begin pilot growing programs for research and development purposes. It’s not an all-out blessing on growing hemp, though, and Carleton said there are still plenty of questions.
“The blanket federal issues are still floating around out there,” Carleton said. “I think certainly what Congress did was important. It was a big step forward, I think it’s certainly going to make things smoother going forward.”
Carleton said his office is working to approve applications as they come, and the process is going smoothly so far. He expects to see many more applications before his office stops accepting them for this year on May 1.
“We’re all kind of anxious to see how all this ends up by May 1,” Carleton said. ❖