Photo: Edward the Bonobo (Flickr)
A bill that’s headed toward becoming law in Indiana legalizes the production of industrial hemp.
Hemp is a plant that is likely best known for being related to marijuana but it doesn’t include hallucinogenic properties.
Hemp advocates say it could be an economic boon to the state, but there are still some roadblocks to hemp becoming a local commodity.
Why Tobacco Farmers Want To Grow Hemp
Bob Backus has grown tobacco most of his life. He grew up on a farm in Southeastern, Indiana, where both his father and grandfather were involved in tobacco production.
But growing tobacco is not as accepted as it was 60 years ago.
“There are obviously health implications with tobacco, I think most of us admit that. There is a certain amount of political correctness in many aspects of the world today,” he says.
The changing public opinion, combined with high labor costs and a changing global market, has put a dent in tobacco production.
Tobacco farmers in the U.S. made a combined $3 billion in the early 1990s. In 2012, they made only half that.
“We’re always open to other options, other alternatives, other methods of growing. Anything that can reduce our expense and yet grow a good crop, a healthy crop,” Backus says.
So far, Backus has tried several measures including cutting back on the number of people he hires and planting radishes in the off season to help revitalize the soil so he doesn’t have to buy as much fertilizer.
But the continuing decline in the market is making him seriously think about giving up on tobacco altogether and switching to a crop that, in most states, is banned- hemp.
How Hemp Became Illegal
In 1937 the federal government made growing hemp illegal except in special cases. It was part of a national effort to crack down on its hallucinogenic cousin marijuana.
But unlike marijuana, hemp was used in a wide variety of products, from biofuels and paper, to clothing and plastic car parts.
It was so versatile, in fact, that during World War II the U.S. actually encouraged people to grow hemp as a way to support the war effort.
Take a look at this video from the Department of Agriculture:
Hemp was completely banned in the 1970s as part of the Controlled Substances Act, but some hemp advocates maintain the original crackdown was more about protecting the oil and timber barons than it was about drugs.
Bill On Track To Legalize Some Hemp Production
“I think it’s a crime it was ever made illegal in the first place,” says State Senator Richard Young, D-Milltown. “I think it presents a tremendous opportunity.”
Young authored a bill this year that legalizes hemp production in Indiana. He says it could be the state’s next cash crop, especially for Southern Indiana where it used to grow in the 1940s.
But there’s a catch.
“Right now, the bill that I’ve got would legalize hemp only if the federal government allows it to be legalized,” he says. “So unlike, for example Colorado that legalized hemp and marijuana regardless of what the federal government did, this requires the federal government to, in fact, change the law and legalize it.”
Earlier this year, Congress did loosen the federal ban on hemp. As a part of the Farm Bill, universities and state departments of agriculture are now allowed to grow hemp if:
- The industrial hemp is grown or cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program…and
- The growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the State.
So far, nine states have laws allowing hemp production and several more are considering legalizing it. Once more research is conducted, hemp advocates hope the federal government will legalize hemp production on a larger scale.
“It’s just slower moving on the federal level like everything else is,” says Kyle Cline, the Indiana Farm Bureau’s national policy adviser. “But, in the mean time, states are taking the lead and preparing themselves so that as the farm bill is implemented with the USDA and as we move on with this that they will be ready to implement those measures.”
There is also the question of supply and demand.
Hemp and hemp-based products such as textiles, lotions, and foods can be legally imported, so there is demand. But so far, that demand has remained fairly small.
“Farmers are very cautious to grow it without a market,” Cline says. “They need that guarantee and that assurance that there’s going to be income and a contract in place. Without that, they’re slow moving.”
The research could provide more information both on the scientific side and the technology side as well as the market and economic side, and that could help boost farmer interest.
Back at his farm, Backus says if there ends up being enough demand, he’d like to try and grow hemp, even if it means he’ll have to put up with routine inspections to make sure he’s not growing marijuana.
“Tobacco is a good crop from the gross income standpoint, but not necessarily a net income standpoint,” he says. “So, hemp may very well have a much lower income per acre but, with basically being all automated, no hand labor, manual labor involved, then the net income could be something that’s very beneficial, something that’s enticing to us.”
Should hemp be legalized and do you think there will be enough demand to convince farmers to grow it? Let us know by commenting below.