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Stunted by heavy rainfall, an industrial hemp crop grows at the Langdon (N.D.) Research Extension Center on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. Nick Nelson/Forum News Service

North Dakota seeks farmers willing to grow hemp for research

BISMARCK — The 2014 Farm Bill allowed for universities and state departments of agriculture to create pilot programs for the growing of industrial hemp. But it didn’t change the Controlled Substances Act or make hemp completely legal.

“The Farm Bill talks about industrial hemp, but the Controlled Substances Act does not mention or distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana,” explains Russ Baer, spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

North Dakota is one of several states with an industrial hemp pilot program, but producers who are interested in growing hemp need to make sure they obtain approval from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture before they add the crop to their rotation, says state agriculture commissioner Doug Goehring.

“It’s still considered a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States of America,” Goehring says. “I don’t want people to get into trouble.”

Goehring says the first step to becoming an industrial hemp grower is to fill out an application. The application asks mostly basic information, including names and contact information, but it also requires specific information about seed sourcing, the kind of market the farmer intends to grow for and other plans for the crop.

2016 was the first year in which hemp legally was grown in North Dakota, and five producers grew 70 acres of it under the pilot program, Goehring says. His department received 17 applications, but 11 of them weren’t completely filled out. He’s expecting a bigger response this year, as most of the growers did well.

“It worked fairly well for producers and that’s why there’s a lot of consideration for next year,” he says.

But growers need to plan ahead, because hemp differs in important ways from more traditional crops. The seeds can only be obtained by someone licensed through the DEA. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture is licensed and can source seeds for people participating in the pilot program.

Because it is a research program, growers need to provide specific information about growing conditions, soil preparation, management, problem weeds and harvest. Officials will have to test for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, to make sure it remains below an acceptable level.

Harvested hemp will have to be dried, and farmers need to have a plan for how they will do that, which can include putting in on the floor or using air. Growers also need to have a plan for marketing their crop, whether they grow for seed, meal, oil or fiber. Hemp can’t be taken to a grain elevator like other crops. There are rules dictating crossing state lines with hemp materials, and there is a limited, though potentially profitable, market for hemp.

Goehring says someone did get in trouble in 2016 for growing hemp without authorization. However, neither John Trautman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for North Dakota, nor Baer had any information about unauthorized hemp investigations, arrests or prosecutions.

Baer says producers who do not comply with the regulations laid out in the 2014 Farm Bill could face legal problems. However, he says the agency’s 4,700 special agents are spread across 90 countries and are dealing with threats related to the opioid crisis and continuing problems with methamphetamine and cocaine.

“We’ve got our plate full without focusing any of our resources, quite frankly, on violations of the Industrial Hemp Act,” Baer says.

Growers interested in planting hemp this spring must submit project proposal applications and requests for seed to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture by 5 p.m. Jan. 31. Proposals will be opened on Feb. 1. Chosen applicants will be required to submit a notarized application, signed memorandum of understanding, fingerprints and associated fees. Applications and instructions are available at