Industrial hemp research proposed

The Agriculture Committee heard testimony Feb. 21 on a bill that would bolster research and development of industrial hemp for use in agribusiness, alternative fuels and other areas.

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne

LB617, introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would create the Industrial Hemp Commission within the state Department of Agriculture. The commission would oversee a five-year research project conducted with the University of Nebraska that would include seed research and the planting, cultivation and analysis of industrial hemp demonstration plots.

License holders would be allowed to sell industrial hemp to an agribusiness or manufacturer to process it into hemp products.

Wayne said industrial hemp has been unfairly stigmatized due to its similarity to marijuana, which has much higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound responsible for the drug’s psychotropic effects. Industrial hemp should be viewed instead as a valuable agricultural commodity that could generate revenue and create jobs, he said.

Similar legislation adopted by Kentucky in 2013 created 500 jobs and led to a 300 percent increase in the amount of land used for industrial hemp production, Wayne said. Approximately $600 million in hemp products, such as fabric, rope, paper, insulation material, drywall and body care products, were sold nationwide last year, he added.

“We have expert farmers, scientists, industrialists and centuries of history to prove that hemp is safe and can be used to make money for Nebraskans,” he said.

The commission would license industrial hemp growers, and application fees would fund the program. The commission also would be responsible for monitoring the industrial hemp grown by license holders and conducting random testing of the plants’ THC levels.

The commission would notify the Nebraska State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies of the size and location of the demonstration plots. The State Patrol could inspect an industrial hemp growing operation twice a year.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, testified in support of the bill. He said Nebraska farmers are exploring alternative crops such as wheat, small grains, legumes and hemp that can withstand the hotter, drier climate predicted by a 2014 UNL study on the implications of climate change for Nebraska. Hemp is drought tolerant and well suited to Nebraska growing conditions, Hansen said.

“I think this particular crop has a lot of potential because it is so versatile,” he said.

John Lupien of Omaha also testified in support of the bill. Lupien’s company, BastCore, produces textile fibers made from hemp. He said the company currently imports or plans to import hemp bales from Canada, Colorado and Kentucky because current rules prevent Nebraska farmers from growing hemp and selling it to manufacturers. Hemp can be used to make composite materials, animal bedding, cement additives and oil drilling fluids, Lupien added.

“I think we’re a lot further along than everyone thinks,” he said. “The markets are here right now.”

Bill Hawkins of the Nebraska Hemp Company also testified in support of the bill. He said Nebraska is one of the only states that has not eradicated wild hemp, often called “ditch weed.” This means that the plants’ genes are valuable for breeding and research. He said Nebraska is losing the race to develop hemp production to Kentucky, which has 40 hemp processing companies.

“All we’re asking for is that opportunity to get back in the race,” he said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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