Agriculture continues to change, often at breakneck speed.
However, a go-slow approach, with untimely stops and long-delayed starts, is the norm with industrial hemp production in the United States.
The times are indeed changing and an obvious example of that will be on display at Farmfest, which is Aug. 6-8 on the Gilfillan Estate grounds in Redwood County.
IDEAg, which puts on the annual event, says firms will offer industrial hemp plots growing alongside more conventional corn and soybean rows. The one fiber and two grain hemp varieties are growing on 7,200 feet of land.
Hemp production, which supporters argue has the potential to add another crop to the monolithic corn-soybean rotation, has received a boost from the state government’s hemp pilot program, which is in its fourth year.
Margaret Wiatrowski, the Industrial Hemp Program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, says interest in the project and in industrial hemp is strong.
“We are continuing to get calls from farmers expressing interest and enthusiasm in placing this crop in (their) rotations but many know very little,’’ she said.
Interested growers can look to the past for guidance. Hemp was a cash crop for several decades before the federal government banned growing it in 1957.
Hemp can be grown for its fiber, which can be used in many products. A cousin to this industrial hemp is grown, dried and smoked to produce an intoxicating high. That is where hemp ran afoul of the government and earned its over-reaching ban.
Perhaps the zenith of hemp production occurred during World War II when the importation of fibers from Europe virtually ended. The federal government hastily created a production network to replace the lost supply.
Through “The Hemp for Victory’’ campaign, which is what it was called, the War Department helped establish 42 mills across the Midwest and inked agreements to raise 4,000 acres of hemp in the vicinity of each facility. The Minnesota War Board, which was part of the ag department, provided financing.
Fifteen mills were built in Minnesota and approximately 60,000 acres committed. Farmers, based on patriotism and a desire to find a financially rewarding third crop, quickly enlisted as growers. Farmers signed contracts for a pre-determined price with USDA.
It looked like farmers had found a viable third crop, but the 1957 law ruined its potential.
Canada was the first North American nation to legalize industrial hemp production in 1998. The United States stopped prohibiting hemp production in 2018 through a provision in the farm bill.
The decision smartly reopens the door to a crop that holds great promise. It appears that industrial hemp can join several other candidates as potential alternative crops. It’s a shame the door on its continued development was slammed shut by the federal government.
The door is now open just a crack. Minnesota’s Industrial Hemp Program is a great start. It is not hard to imagine that in the future, industrial hemp will join ethanol and soy-based biodiesel as a major contributor to the health of rural Minnesota communities.