The more we learn about hemp, the less enthusiastic we are about it as an option for western farmers.
It is illegal under federal law, the market for it is minuscule and it requires a lot of water, which is a precious commodity nearly everywhere in the region.
On the plus side, it’s easy to grow. It’s still found in ditches in parts of the Midwest, where it was grown during World War II to make rope.
The economics of growing hemp appear to be marginal at best. The folks at Oregon State University ran some numbers on it. Providing that a reliable market could be found or established, it would bring in upward of $400 an acre — a bit more than half what wheat would bring in, according to OSU. The kicker: It would grow best in eastern Oregon but requires 20 to 28 inches of irrigation.
In Canada, as recently as 2011, a total 39,000 acres of hemp were grown and farmers netted $200 to $250 an acre, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.
Considering those factors, we are not surprised that virtually no one outside Portland, Eugene and a few other hotspots is clamoring for the ability to grow the stuff. No mainline farm group has expressed any interest in it whatsoever.
Economics aside, the fundamental hurdle that hempsters must get past is its illegality. States such as Oregon and, most recently, California, have declared that hemp is distinct from marijuana and have approved hemp’s cultivation. The U.S. House version of the farm bill does the same, though we have to wonder when Congress will approve any farm bill, let alone one that embraces hemp. The U.S. attorney in Oregon even said growing hemp was OK, but since then has waffled on her statement.
One other state where hemp has gained supporters is Kentucky, where some farmers are looking for an alternative to growing tobacco. Even there, the state attorney general has issued a warning that hemp is, and will continue to be, illegal until Congress says otherwise.
In the meantime, hemp is included with marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The problem is that hemp and marijuana are the same species. Only the amount of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound found in both, is different. Differentiation between the two would require close scrutiny and testing. It should also be noted that hemp can be processed to concentrate the amount of THC from it to provide a potent drug.
Unless and until Congress, in its wisdom, decides that hemp should be grown in the U.S., the federal law will still be the controlling law in Oregon, California and other states.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture is putting together a committee to study what to do about hemp. Our advice: Do nothing. Either Congress will act on the issue, or it won’t. Either way, the state needn’t get itself — and farmers — caught up in the cloud of legal uncertainty that exists today.