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Industrial hemp in the Bitterroot

Laura Garber and Henry Wuensche look over a portion of their first-ever industrial hemp crop at their Homestead Organics Farms south of Hamilton last summer. The couple are part of a growing contingent of farmers across the state who are experimenting with the potential of a new crop with historic roots.

The state’s first industrial hemp cooperative took an important first step forward last week when it formed a board of directors and gathered stock subscriptions.

More than 40 people turned out for the organizational meeting at the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority building in Hamilton.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that before,” said RCEDA executive director Julie Foster. “It kind of felt like a gold rush for agriculture.”

The growing interest in raising industrial hemp was thrust into the limelight recently after Congress transformed the policy surrounding the cannabis plant that’s a cousin to marijuana when it passed the 2018 Farm Bill.

The legislation allows for hemp cultivation and the transfer of hemp-derived produce across state lines for commercial purposes. It also did away with restrictions of the sale, transport or possession of hemp-derived products that are produced in a manner consistent with the law.

But that doesn’t mean that hemp will become as common as string beans or potatoes in the backyard garden. Its production will remain highly regulated for both personal and industrial uses.

There are sure to be some hiccups along the way when it comes to figuring out how all the pieces are going to fit together.

“There’s a lot of interest and there’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” said Ian Foley, the Montana Department of Agriculture’s hemp program coordinator. “At the state level, the farm bill didn’t deregulate industrial hemp. You still have to have a license to grow it.”

People interested in obtaining a license to grow hemp for the upcoming season have until Jan. 31 to get the process completed.

Foley expects to see more farmers test the waters in what some believe could be an economic boom for agriculture.

“There are a lot of the same issues that apply with all agricultural products in terms of finding a market,” Foley said. “I think we’ll see more acres of hemp grown this year, but whether those farmers will be making money or not, that’s not a question that I want to try to answer.

“There’s a lot of information out there in agricultural journals and the media,” he said. “You see various market projections that industrial hemp could reach billions of dollars in the next 10 years. That likely may be true, but to get there is going to be a process.”

Members of the Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative are hoping to get in on the ground floor of this new market, said Homestead Organic Farms’ Laura Garber.

Garber and her husband, Henry Wuensche, grew a plot of industrial hemp on their farm just south of Hamilton this summer. Garber is one of the lead organizers in putting a cooperative together.

She was encouraged by the diversity of interests at last week’s organizational meeting.

“There were 40 people who came to the meeting,” Garber said. “There were definitely some who were interested in growing hemp for CBD production, but there were other people interested in other opportunities offered by the plant.

“There was a full gamut ranging from experienced growers to people who want to try growing it and others who want to develop products from hemp,” she said.

There was even a family with home-schooled students who used the meeting as a learning project.

“They wanted to be able to have their kids join the cooperative and see how cooperatives are formed and how they work,” Garber said. “It was really a good model of people working together to find a positive solution that could be really beneficial for our community.”

The cooperative’s next meeting is Jan. 8 at the RCEDA building at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.

“We are still in the idea generation phase on trying to decide what it is that we want to work on first and how we will go about that,” Garber said.

While much of the early interest in industrial hemp is focused on the extraction of Cannabidiol or CBD — a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis touted for its potential health attributes — Garber is just as excited about the potential for other uses of the plant.

“I’m really interested in working on creating a fabric out of hemp,” she said. “There were a couple of other people there with the same interest … Our focus needs to be on way to add value to the product right here in the Bitterroot.

“Just growing it here isn’t going to do much for our economy,” Garber said. “We can’t all be focused on producing CBD. That may be a trend and perhaps won’t last forever. We do have the opportunity here to come up with products that are sustainable. We have a chance to get ahead of the game and be trendsetters.

“There is so much that can be done with hemp,” she said. “Right now, we’re focused on brainstorming. We’re considering everything from small ideas to grand ideas. There was a lot of free thinking in the room last time. People were thinking outside the box. I think there will be a lot of opportunity for people to get involved in all aspects.”

This opportunity won’t always be there.

“If we don’t do this work now, someone else will and the Bitterroot will lose an opportunity to create new industry,” Garber said. “Right now, it seems like people are willing to the legwork to help make something happen.

“We are looking to create pathways for both small and large producers, for those who own one acre to 100,” she said. “It might not be the same product that they ultimately produce, but the opportunities are there.”

On Tuesday’s meeting, people can still purchase $50 stock subscriptions that allow people to officially join the cooperative with the ability to vote on upcoming proposals. Once the cooperative is solidly formed, it will sell preferred stock at $500 a share that will give investors a chance to earn dividends in the future.

Montana’s industrial hemp industry will continue to unfold through the upcoming legislative session, Foley said.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill rules, the state is required to present a plan to the USDA that shows how it will license farmer and track locations where hemp is grown. The state will also be required to test THC levels, the compound that produces the high in marijuana. Industrial hemp can not exceed 0.3 THC.

Foley said producers will also have to work through certification of domestic seed sources. Up until now, nearly all hemp seed has been imported from Canada.

There are three or four draft bills that will be considered in the upcoming legislative session.

“The state Legislature will have some ideas on how hemp production should be legislated,” Foley said. “I think 2019 will be a learning year for everyone.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.