MORGAN, Minn. — Minnesota farmers could soon grow more of the hops that flavor craft beers and the industrial hemp used to produce CBD oils and lotions.

Exhibitors at Farmfest last week showed off small plots of the crops, but were upfront with farmers, saying that more research needs to be done.

Anthony Cortilet, supervisor of the state's industrial hemp program, said interest in the crop has grown significantly in the pilot program's first four years. More than 300 farmers grow hemp, totaling more than 8,000 acres.

The hemp seeds and grains can be used to produce food, the stalk can be used to make rope and textiles, and female flowers of the plant can be used to make cannabidiol or CBD, an extract used to address various health issues. 

Growing industrial hemp became legal under state pilot programs as part of the 2014 Farm Bill and corresponding state legislation the next year. Last year's federal Farm Bill legalized growing hemp for commercial purposes, blowing up the demand for the new crop.

The number of licensed hemp growers in the state grew from 43 in 2018 to 310 this year, and demand continues to grow, Cortilet said. Three people run the program now and haven't been able to keep up with the requests, he said. But interested individuals will soon be able to apply for a license online.

Cortilet said that before farmers or prospective growers take the dive, they should familiarize themselves with the laws governing hemp, check the Department of Agriculture's website and talk to someone growing hemp now.

"Research is the main message I tell everyone. Then maybe plan to start small and learn the first year or two," Cortilet said. "There are farmers who will shoot straight with them."

Another crop, hops, got attention at Farmfest, where vines of months-old plants grew up toward the top of wooden beams.

"If you're looking for a boom crop, there are none," Eric Anderson, of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association told farmers visiting his booth on Thursday.

Anderson said that while an IPA with Minnesota-grown hops sounds nice in theory, it's a tough ask right now. Hops were developed in the western United States and farmers have faced challenges growing them in Minnesota.

Hops can be subject to mold or flavoring issues that make them taste like onions, not a great flavoring for a new brew. Anderson said farmers willing to put in the work and the time could see strong demand from Minnesota brewers that want to use locally-grown hops.

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