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ND hemp grower hopes farm bill retains hemp provision

WILLISTON, N.D.—The U.S. Senate's version of the farm bill contains a provision that would remove hemp from the controlled substances list, making it legal to grow across the nation as a cash crop, and making hemp farmers eligible for crop insurance.

That was welcome news to Williams County's only hemp grower in far northwest North Dakota. Wade Fischer signed on the dotted line for a second time to grow industrial hemp in North Dakota as part of the state's pilot program, although this year he's trying a couple new approaches.

Fischer said it is about time hemp was legalized. It's been grown as a cash crop successfully in Canada for decades, but has been illegal to grow in the United States because it is listed as a controlled substance. The 2014 Farm Bill opened the door to state agriculture departments and universities to run pilot projects exploring its feasibility as a cash crop, but the programs have come with a lot of red tape.

Fischer has experienced it all firsthand. These range from eyes in the sky that watch the field, to more onerous impediments, such as restrictions on where it may be sold. North Dakota growers are so far only allowed to sell it to one buyer, as it's not supposed to cross state lines.

"It's just a lot of extra stuff that you kind of giggle at, going when are they going to finally let this off the list," Fischer said. "(Legalizing hemp) is something that needed to be done a long time ago. All of these regulations they have are just kind of pointless. With industrial hemp, there's nothing that can be smoked."

Fischer was one of 37 producers in North Dakota to grow industrial hemp last year for what was the state's third year running the pilot program. Three thousand acres were in production, of which Fischer had 7 percent. This year the state has 24 growers.

There isn't any crop insurance for hemp yet, however, and the market isn't what Fischer would call favorable yet. Last year, none of the prices he was able to get were going to be profitable.

"We thought we had another buyer out of Canada that would buy it for 30 cents more a pound than the guy in North Dakota," Fischer said, "but then, as of February, they sent us an email that they were not buying any more. So we were stuck selling it to the North Dakota buyer, and he had dropped his prices another 10 cents."

This time around, Fischer said he's going to try going the organic route, and he's also going to grow certified seed for growers.

"What I kind of saw is that the organic side seems to be huge in America and third world countries," he said. "The prices are a lot better. I can't make money (growing hemp) in conventional farming. Prices have really dropped because of hemp acres in the U.S."

Markets for the domestic supply have just not caught up to hemp's potential yet, and the restrictions in place are not helping matters.

The organic approach will take a lot of documentation, Fischer acknowledged, as well as new weed management approaches. He plans to use mowing, as well as cultivating around weeds and burning them.

"After the crop, we'll turn the soil over again to manage for weeds, and seed a cover crop, to give it more organic matter," Fischer said.

He hopes growing seed for other growers will help lower one of the costs involved in growing hemp.

"We have all had to buy it up in Canada, and it's a lot of work," Fischer said.

Since it is a controlled substance, DEA has to approve the hemp seeds that cross an international border. The seed is brought from Canada to Bismarck for the DEA to look at. Then it heads north again, to Carrington, for growers to pick up.

"Hopefully we can get enough seed, and it will be cheaper and quicker for growers," Fischer said.

Legalizing hemp will be a boon to the crop long-term, Fischer believes, helping it to develop more markets.

"It's one of the best crops," he said. "You can use it from seed to stalk to root. It's a crop with way more purposes, but so far we are stuck with one, possibly two."

Still, despite the problems, Fischer is optimistic that hemp will eventually get there.

"It's kind of like ethanol was 15, 20 years ago," he said. "Now it's a big thing."