Crop with potential
But don’t bet the farm just yet
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?