Crop with po­ten­tial

But don’t bet the farm just yet

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

THERE ARE a lot of grow-uhs in these lat­i­tudes. Our state alone ac­counts for more than 50 per­cent of U.S. rice pro­duc­tion (to the tune of $6 bil­lion). Soy­beans are an­other chunk of the South­ern econ­omy, along with sugar and cot­ton.

Now ru­mor has it there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to le­gal crops, and grow-uhs say this plant has po­ten­tial.

This kid’s name is hemp. No, that’s not the same as dope. It’s rope.

Our first pres­i­dent har­vested hemp as a cash crop. For most of the na­tion’s his­tory it re­mained so. Things changed in 1970 when Congress passed the Con­trolled Sub­stances Act, which re­quired grow­ers to get a per­mit for it—be­cause it was a cousin to mar­i­juana. (Ev­ery fam­ily has “that” cousin.)

Pres­i­dent Trump and our Congress fixed that with last year’s Farm Bill. It changed in­dus­trial hemp to an agri­cul­tural com­mod­ity. Now Arkansas farm­ers have much more lee­way to ex­per­i­ment with the crop.

State rep­re­sen­ta­tive David Hill­man of Almyra filed in­dus­trial hemp and re­search leg­is­la­tion in 2017. It was signed into law that year. He told us as a life­long farmer from Arkansas County that he’d pre­vi­ously op­posed hemp for the same rea­sons ev­ery other politi­cian did—be­cause of its close ties to mar­i­juana. It also looks like weed. But af­ter do­ing more re­search, he learned the two are not the same.

“I didn’t know that un­til I got in­volved in this. The pub­lic needs to know hemp is not mar­i­juana. You can’t get high on hemp,” he said.

Hemp can be used to pro­duce ev­ery­thing from CBD oil to rope. And now that he’s re­searched the plant, Rep. Hill­man told us he’s cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about its spread in Arkansas. He said hemp is not likely to be­come the next rice or soy­beans, although some farm­ers might find a niche mar­ket for it. But the Repub­li­can urged they not bet the farm on hemp.

“This is not a crop for ev­ery­one,” he said.

His warn­ings make sense. Just be­cause it’s sud­denly eas­ier to grow hemp doesn’t mean it’s a get-rich-quick crop. Rep. Hill­man warned farm­ers: If they didn’t have the abil­ity to stand plant­ing costs with zero sales in the first year, this might not be the crop for them.

It’s not a free-for-all with hemp here in our state any­way. The Arkansas Plant Board is­sues per­mits for those in­ter­ested in grow­ing it. Then its in­spec­tors visit the grow­ing site. Reg­u­la­tions say the crop can’t be planted too close to a school. Dur­ing grow­ing sea­son the plant board will visit the farm for an in­spec­tion, with an­other in­spec­tion at har­vest time. There’s a fi­nal test­ing af­ter har­vest, too. (Ex­perts will tell you that there is a bit of THC in hemp, but we’re talk­ing trace amounts. You can get higher by breath­ing at an Amer­i­can rock con­cert.)

Why all the vis­its and in­spec­tions? In­spec­tors need to make sure farm­ers aren’t try­ing to hide mar­i­juana in their hemp crop. Ah, the Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur. Al­ways try­ing to get a leg up on the com­pe­ti­tion.

If the crop turns out to be vi­able in Arkansas, Rep. Hill­man told us he es­ti­mates there could be be­tween 8,000 and 10,000 acres of hemp grown in Arkansas within five years.

“It could be an al­ter­na­tive crop,” he said. “You don’t ever know un­til you try.”

THERE ARE ben­e­fits to grow­ing hemp in Arkansas. Rep. Hill­man said back in the 1920s the pes­ti­cides farm­ers used con­tained heavy met­als like ar­senic and lead. That stuff likes to stick around in the soil, but hemp has the abil­ity to draw those met­als out of the dirt and into the plant.

“To me, it’s go­ing to be a valu­able as­set for us where we have these high heavy met­als in the soil,” he said.

Hemp can also be used to make things like paper. Right now it might be too cost-pro­hib­i­tive to com­pete with wood pulp for paper pro­duc­tion. But if that ever changes, that’s when hemp farm­ing might get se­ri­ous.

To top off hemp ad­van­tages, Rep. Hill­man told us plant­ing it doesn’t re­quire as much fer­til­izer.

Like the law­maker from Arkansas County, we’re in­ter­ested to see what hap­pens, but no­body should put all their eggs into one bas­ket.

Which, by the way, can also be made of hemp. Now then, is it warm enough to till yet?

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