With their water wells dropping, two farmers from the far southwest corner of Kansas flew a 1967 Cessna Wednesday morning to Topeka – all in support of hemp.
Farmers Darren Buck and Reid Shrauner didn’t have quite the journey as some of their fellow Morton County residents, who left before sunlight to support a bill that they think could boost their county’s struggling economy and extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.
On this tough terrain where rain comes sparingly, Buck and Shrauner envision industrial hemp as an alternative crop to water-intense corn. It could also be more revenue-yielding than wheat and milo, which aren’t profitable in the current depressed farm economy. Moreover, maybe a processing plant would come to town, creating jobs in the county of 3,150.
Buck’s own irrigation wells have gone down an average 2 feet a year for the past 10 years. One well is pumping 300 to 400 gallons a minute, compared to 800 gallons a minute a decade ago.
Yet irrigation is the basis of the economy here, which is why the two farmers see hemp as a possible alternative.
“I would absolutely plant it on my farm,” said Buck, a third-generation farmer whose grandfather came to the area in 1917. “I want to see the economics of it, but it is a hardy plant, it uses less herbicides, less water, and there are lots of good uses for it. And it looks like it initially could be a great benefit for southwest Kansas, and we need this authorized so Kansas State can start doing research so we can develop varieties.”
Industrial hemp bill
Industrial hemp was once a prominent crop in the United States.
The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Even the first American flag, reported to be made by Betsy Ross, was crafted from hemp fiber.
Henry Ford even experimented with hemp to build car bodies, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council.
But the hemp industry began to go downhill after that. Hemp was doomed by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed an extremely high tax on marijuana and made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp.
During World War II, the U.S. Department of Agriculture campaigned with ”Hemp for Victory” – allowing farmers to grow it with a permit.
Yet, while Congress expressly expected the continued production of industrial hemp, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped industrial hemp with marijuana, as its successor, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, does to this day, according to the hemp council.
The 2014 farm bill included a provision allowing states, through research institutions and departments of agriculture, to grow and posses industrial hemp, according to the Kansas Farm Bureau, a proponent of the bill.
More than 30 states have adopted legislation allowing for research and development of industrial hemp products. As many as eight more have introduced bills to their state governments. House Bill 2182 would allow Kansas to join those efforts.
Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, introduced The Agricultural Industry Growth Act to the Kansas House Committee on Commerce, Labor and Economic Development. The purpose of the bill is to authorize and encourage the growth of the industrial hemp industry in Kansas. Passage would help begin a value-added industry through research activities, business development and the support of public and private cooperation, along with education, according to the bill’s language.
The research would focus on efficient means of producing hemp in Kansas as well as analyzing its potential uses and economic benefits of generating a local hemp industry. Industrial hemp products range from rope and paper to construction materials and fuel.
“Industrial is an avenue of restoring Kansas farmers where they once were pre-1940,” Dove said to committee members. In his written testimony he added that the United States once had 400,000 acres planted to hemp and Kansas was a leading producer.
“We can be again,” he stated.
Dove stressed hemp’s water conservation measures, as well as its potential boon for the state economy. He said American consumers buy 70 different products that contain industrial hemp every day.
“Yet we choose to send $700 million across to Canada every year,” said Dove of a country that allows producers to grow it.
He added that industrial hemp is not marijuana.
While both plants are members of the genus Cannabis sativa, they are genetically different, which is noted in the current farm bill. The major difference in the two is THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC. Marijuana, smoked for its hallucinogenic and medical properties, contains 10 to 100 times that amount.
Among the economic development directors speaking in favor was Janae Talbott, with Russell County Economic Development. She said the bill would help bring new value-added opportunities to the area and create jobs and new businesses.
Caryl Hale, whose family farms in Norton County, said Dove visited with the Norton County Farm Bureau a few years ago about the legislation. Everyone in the room was in favor of legalizing industrial hemp.
“In Norton, it already grows everywhere,” she said. “It’s along our ditches. It’s growing in my garden – not intentionally. I had to dig it up and till it up, but it keeps reseeding itself.”
“It’s still here and it is still around, and that shows its perseverance in growing in an area of very little water,” Hale said.
Law enforcement against it
Only one person gave oral testimony against the bill. Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeffrey T. Easter spoke for the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association. He expressed concerns that the language of the bill could be basically legalizing marijuana. Also, he was concerned about how officers would enforce drug laws, as well as regulate whether the industrial hemp had more than 0.3 percent THC. The two plants look similar. He said there are worries that some would try to take advantage of the law and try to grow marijuana.
Most committee representatives who spoke during the hearing touted the positives.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, asked Easter what steps could be taken for law enforcement and the farm industry to come together and “at the same time save these people’s farms.”
Easter was in agreement that his organization didn’t want to stand in the way of economic development and said they were interested in coming to the table to work out concerns.
Meanwhile, a fiscal note for the bill using information provide by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which one lawmaker noted was against the bill, showed it would cost the state more than $800,000 in fiscal 2018. That included for additional equipment and staff, which includes forensic testing on whether the plants have too much THC.
J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, however, pointed out sarcastically that he didn’t necessarily agree with those figures.
“If I was being really cynical here, Mr. Rep. (Dove), if I didn’t like a bill and I worked in an agency and really just didn’t want to do any of the work, I could come up with all sorts of crazy assumptions ... and not base it on anything founded in fact and not submit testimony on how we arrived at that number. Could I do that?”
“You could,” Dove said, which was followed by laughs.
Morton County represented
Aaron Cromer, who farms in Stevens and Morton counties, said he grows corn, wheat and milo. He said in the past 60 days, Morton County has lost 22 jobs at its county-funded hospital, and 15 jobs in the oil and gas sector.
Hemp processing and refinement in the county would create jobs, he said.
“Right now we are withering pretty bad out there,” he said.
Cromer added there is a lot to learn still about industrial hemp, but the industry is hindered because there is no research and development on the crop to help answer the unknowns. He said if he was able to grow it – even for research – he would need a permit or license to do so.
Talking with Cromer about the potential, Shalee Higgins, who works at a crop insurance agency in Morton County, began spearheading an effort to gather overwhelming support from county businesses and farmers. Several farmers, as well as the local co-op, city administrator and an implement dealership, all wrote letters in support. In all, 11 residents were present at the hearing in support of the bill.
“Our farmers are in desperate need of a new change because the crops we grow are down because of the flooded bushels. Oil and gas is down. Farmers are looking for new avenues.”
She started calling farmers, businesses and landowners. Everyone she talked to was supportive.
“We desperately need another option,” Higgins said. “With the water situation and the drought going on, they are needing a new crop other than corn that can still use less water and still bring profits in – make enough income to raise their families in western Kansas.”
That includes Shrauner, a fourth-generation farmer who farms with his father, Scott, in both Kansas and Oklahoma.
His father is nearing 70 years of age, he said. While his dad might not see irrigation from the Ogallala end, Shrauner fears he will – especially if nothing changes. His wells also are dropping a few feet a year.
Shrauner said with the present poor farm economy, only irrigation-intensive corn is profitable. Wheat prices are at all-time lows, and because of that, he planted only a small amount of wheat this year – which will be grazed out by cattle.
His family’s livelihood is dependent on irrigated farming that was put in place by his grandfather and father. He said the area needs a way to farm profitably using less water.
Industrial hemp, Shrauner said as he and Buck flew toward Topeka, “would be a home run if anything comes from it. We all know the life of the aquifer is limited.”
Buck, too, is concerned about the future of farming in southwest Kansas.
“When irrigation ceases, you will have the 1930s’ economy really quick,” he said. “I have an agronomy degree and a masters of science in agriculture economics from Oklahoma State: This doesn’t take a masters in economics to figure out this is a good thing for southwest Kansas.”