Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative takes root

Andrew Burgess of Stevensville is the president of the new Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative. He plans to grow 500 hemp plants on about a half-acre of land as an experiment whose results he plans to share with anyone who wants to learn more about growing industrial hemp in the Bitterroot Valley.

Andrew Burgess is pretty sure that something is going to go wrong this year.

And he can hardly wait to see what it might be.

As president of the fledgling Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative, he knows that sometimes the best way to learn how to do something right is to first do it wrong.

This is Burgess’ first attempt at growing industrial hemp on his 2-acre lot just east of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. He’s tempered his expectations this first go-round.

“I would like to sell one bottle of oil made from plants that I raised right here,” said the Stevensville man.

Burgess wants to be the tip of the experiment. He wants others interested in growing their own fields of industrial hemp in the Bitterroot Valley to have a resource where they can learn what works and what doesn’t.

“There is a lot of interest in hemp here in the valley,” Burgess said. “There a lot of people with small acreages who have never grown a crop in their lives. That’s what this cooperative is all about. We want to be able to share equipment, our land and share knowledge between members.”

Just a few steps from his front door is the freshly tilled half-acre where he plans to plant the 500 seedlings that’s he currently waiting to sprout in his outbuilding. He’s working on creating a grid where he’ll set drip irrigation and eventually plant his hemp.

“I have to learn everything about it,” Burgess said. “I know that I’m going to have to learn through experience. Along the way, I want to be best cheerleader that the Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative could have.”

The hemp cooperative is the first of its kind in Montana. When the state asked for input on its pending rules regarding hemp, more than half of the comments came from the Bitterroot.

That fact caught the attention of the Montana Department of Agriculture. Last week, its director and legal counsel met with about 40 people interested in offering their views and learning about the potential for hemp on the state.

Those who attended the meeting learned that last year Montana led the country in industrial hemp production.

Last year, 52 licensed industrial hemp growers planted about 28,000 acres of the crop. This year, more than 250 growers have obtained a license. While officials don’t believe that five times as much land will be planted in hemp, they do expect a substantial increase.

Laura Garber of Hamilton’s Homestead Organics Farm raised industrial hemp last year with her husband, Henry Wuensche. They are founding members of the cooperative that they hope will give the Bitterroot Valley a chance to get in on the ground floor of an emerging crop.

“I think we’ve shown that we are a real thing,” Garber said. “Montana is really ahead of the game at this point. We need to continue to do what we can to stay there.”

Members of the cooperative expressed concerns to the state official about proposed rules that would charge a license fee for every plot of land that was used to grow hemp. They also wanted to know if there would exemptions for people who wanted to grow a small amount of hemp for their own use.

The department’s attorney, Cort Jensen, said the state is currently waiting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finalize its rules on how industrial hemp will be regulated. That could come as soon as this fall or maybe early 2020.

The 2018 Farm Bill, which was signed just before last year’s government shutdown, transferred the regulation of industrial hemp to the USDA from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The crop is still being grown under a pilot program set in place by the 2014 Farm Bill. The pilot program that allowed states or land-grant colleges to grow the plant came with a long list of stipulations that included requirements for growers to be fingerprinted and the seed to be imported from other countries.

Montana was one of three states that obtained DEA authorization to run the pilot program.

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Jensen said the regulations were eased somewhat in the 2018 Farm bill when the USDA took over the program. Seeds now can be purchased from domestic sources. Some Bitterroot growers, including Burgess purchased their seeds from an Oregon source.

But until the USDA releases its regulations, there’s a still a lot of gray on what’s legal and what’s not when you cross state lines.

The cash cow of industrial hemp currently is cannabidoil, commonly called CBD oil — a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis that’s touted by some for its potential health attributes. People have been arrested recently — including a grandmother at Disney World — for having CBD oil that allegedly contained too much THC, the chemical in marijuana that makes you high.

For industrial hemp to be legal, it can not contain more than .3 percent THC.

“Montana grows a lot of wheat, but it never turns into a Class 1 Scheduled Drug if a mistake is made,” Jensen said. “We have to make sure that hemp remains hemp.”

Until the USDA comes out with its regulations, Jensen said the state can’t allow unlicensed growers in the state, even those who want to grow a few plants in their gardens.

But after talking with members of the cooperative — many of whom want to be licensed to grow hemp on small parcels that might be located in a variety of locations — Jensen said it made sense to back off the proposal of creating a location fee. The state will likely implement a flat fee instead.

The state and growers still have a lot to learn.

“A lot of growers are literally experimenting this year,” Jensen said. “They are learning how to grow the crop in their own locations … every single county in the state has had someone request to grow hemp.”

Burgess expects to learn a lot this year.

“I think it’s going to be an adventure,” he said. “At the end of the year, we’ll take a look at what people did and what worked and what didn’t. And then we’ll figure out how to do it better.”