LINCOLN, Neb. – After a fierce, and at times bizarre, debate in the Nebraska Legislature, Nebraska farmers will soon be able to attempt to find their place in the growing industrial hemp market, as soon as the state’s plan is approved by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Governor Pete Ricketts signed the bill into law on May 30. The Nebraska Hemp Farming Act reclassified hemp into a legal and viable agricultural crop. Federally, hemp was legalized in the 2018 federal farm bill. The bill passed the legislature in a landslide, 43-4.
Senator Justin Wayne, of Omaha, introduced the bill. He told the Lincoln Journal-Star that the bill would allow Nebraska to join Wyoming and 40 other states that have enacted laws to legalize hemp farming, and that hemp could be a $1 billion industry in the state.
“Hemp production is coming, one way or another, and rather than being out of the business for two to three years, it’s important we get in now,” Wayne said.
Wayne’s bill outlines testing procedures to ensure Nebraska hemp has less than 0.3 percent THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in hemp’s cousin, marijuana. It also set up a registration procedure, licensing and fee requirements and enforcement requirements.
Hemp was last legally grown in Nebraska during World War 2, and the resulting fibers were used for the war effort. At that time, Wayne said, Nebraska was the top hemp producer. It dates back to 1880 in the Cornhusker State, when the first successful crop was grown in the Fremont area.
Hemp has experienced a resurgence in U.S. markets recently. Hemp proponents claim the plant has over $25,000 uses, including textiles, building materials and health supplements like CBD oil and protein supplements. The Colorado Department of Agriculture has also tested hemp as a supplement in cattle feed.
CBD oil has had proven results in treating epilepsy and anxiety, and has been reported to help with a variety of ailments and maladies.
Hemp farming is not without its opponents, however. Most of the opposition comes from the fact that hemp and marijuana are both cultivars of cannabis sativa. According to research conducted at the University of Wyoming by Dr. Caitlin Youngquist that was used to guide Wyoming’s legislation, there are distinct differences between cannabis plants grown for agricultural use and those grown for their psychoactive properties.
“Consider the difference between sugar beets and table beets,” Youngquist wrote. “One
species, but two different cultivars with very different uses.”
The cultivars that will be legal in Wyoming and Nebraska are very low in THC. The difference in the plants is that industrial hemp cultivars are more hollow, which allows more energy to be directed into the production of bark fiber, Youngquist wrote.
The South Dakota Legislature passed a similar piece of legislation, but it was vetoed by Gov. Kristi Noem because hemp is closely related to marijuana. That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Oren Lesmeister, to claim that other states were “probably jumping for joy” because they could get a bigger piece of the market.
The most serious opposition to the Nebraska Hemp Act was led by Sen. John Lowe, of Kearney. His opposition led to protestors of the bill having children pose outside of the state capitol holding signs with slogans like ‘We’re Cornhuskers, not hemp huskers’ and ‘We need hope, not dope.’
“I caution us as we head down this path,” Lowe said. “Agriculture is very important to this state. To say we’re going to live or die by this one crop we have not grown for a long time I don’t believe is true.”
Lowe also claimed that cows that eat hemp are born with deformities, even though the studies conducted by the Colorado Department of Agriculture have shown that feeding hemp seed meal helps improve digestion, increases life expectancy and produces good meat flavor.
Lowe also made a claim to have read in an article – which he neglected to cite – that people are drying out hemp and smoking it, which he said resulted in people getting high, despite the lack of THC.
“The people of this state should not be hoodwinked by the name of hemp,” he said. “People have rebutted that you don’t smoke ditchweed. I read an article where it is the hot new thing they are doing.”
Despite the resistance, the NHA passed by a large margin and was signed into law. There is log jam of hemp production plans that are waiting to be approved by the USDA. The plans aren’t going to be reviewed until this fall, which means Nebraska will miss out on a hemp crop in 2019, but could begin to make an impact on the state’s economy in 2020.