An Idaho legislative committee has approved a bill that would legalize the cultivation of hemp in that state.

The Idaho Legislature soon may lift the state’s blanket ban on hemp, one of three in the U.S., in light of the crop’s federal legalization under the December 2018 Farm Bill.

That would please Mike Standlee, who farms 23,000 acres in south central Idaho and owns marketing company Standlee Premium Forage. He told the Idaho House Agriculture Committee Feb. 4 that growing and processing hemp, as he plans once the state allows, would benefit Idaho economically. And hemp’s growth potential could encourage young people to stay in production agriculture, he said.

Bringing in new agricultural industry is important for the sector’s future growth, he said. Starting early is important given that costs and competition will likely increase, and building market share will take time.

“We are quickly falling behind other states if we don’t act now,” Standlee said. “Timing is very important, and Idaho should be taking its opportunity in hemp.”

Hemp is similar to marijuana, but the new Farm Bill defines it as containing less than 0.3 percent of the intoxicant tetrahydrocannibinol, known as THC. Hemp can be used in fiber, plastics and some industrial materials. New health treatments use hemp-derivative cannabinoid (CBD) oils.

The Farm Bill allows cultivation, processing and interstate transport of hemp as well as products made with derivative extracts as long as legal procedures are followed. Regulation is by USDA, with participation from state agriculture and law enforcement agencies.

Idaho House Agricultural Affairs Committee Vice Chair Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, said proposed legislation would change state law to enable farmers to grow hemp, and to request that the state Department of Agriculture develop a program plan. It would remove hemp from the controlled-substance list contained in the current law, enacted in 1927. The draft legislation would make all hemp production and derivative production, including cannabinoid or cannabidiol (CBD) oil, legal.

CBD oil has been used in some health treatments and products. The Farm Bill allows production of CBD oil only by licensed producers following federal and state regulations, or where a product is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Idaho Legislature in recent years rejected legislation to legalize CBD oil.

The current Idaho hemp legislation was in draft form as of Feb. 4, when work continued on language for its statements of purpose and fiscal impact. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation supports legalizing industrial hemp production, and authorizing University of Idaho and state Department of Agriculture research into market-suited varieties.

“Some people think that because it’s in the Farm Bill, they can go ahead and sign contracts and start growing,” Troy said in an interview. “Unfortunately it’s still illegal in Idaho, and we’ve got to change that.”

Standlee, who farms in the Hazelton-Eden area, said he would start growing hemp on a small number of acres, and then expand as field results and market conditions dictate. Hemp growers report the crop can be grown for five or six consecutive years, or — for potentially higher yields and other benefits — in rotation with other crops, he said.

Arizona-based Thom Brodeur-Kazanjian, a longtime food brands executive who has studied hemp over the past several years, said hemp grows in the same conditions as corn but uses less water and nutrients. Hemp also grows well at various elevations, he said.

Idaho farmers could easily lead the U.S. in hemp acres given that the current U.S. total of just below 26,000 includes about 10,000 in Colorado, 3,500 in Oregon, 3,000 in North Dakota and smaller amounts in various states.

Revenue per acre now is high — $20,000 to $40,000 — in part because hemp seed, fiber and extracts all contribute to total value, Brodeur-Kazanjian said.

Legislation in states has not kept up with demand, one reason total U.S. acreage is low, he said. Although revenue per acre will drop as production rises, “getting a seat at the table is the really important part.”

Rich Garber, government affairs director for the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said hemp ultimately could compete for acres with other Idaho crops if its economics ultimately play out as advocates predict. But hemp figures to be less of an acreage competitor in the short term as prices drop in step with acreage gains, he said.

Committee member Rep. Jerald Raymond, R-Menan, said he knows a Washington farmer who grew hemp and held it unsold after disappointing results. He asked if there are quality and other standards that make hemp more marketable.

Some committee members expressed concerns about hop seeds being blown into other crop fields.

“This is a fluid environment,” Brodeur-Kazanjian said. “There is a lot to learn and a lot to know moving forward.”

The committee took no action at the information-only meeting.

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