Farmers in Colorado and at least 10 other states are preparing to plant, cultivate and harvest hemp legally for the first time since the crop was outlawed more than 50 years ago.
As they learn about the crop’s preferences and the best methods to harvest the seeds for oil or the long stalks for fiber, they are sidestepping the first part of the process that remains unclear: getting the seed.
“It’s kind of a catch there right now,” said Ron Carleton, the state’s deputy commissioner of agriculture.
Federal law still prohibits the importation and sale of non-sterile hemp seed, which is needed for industrial farming.
Hemp — a cannabis plant without the psychoactive THC chemical that allows marijuana smokers to get high — is still classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a controlled substance even though Colorado legalized hemp along with recreational marijuana in 2012 with Amendment 64.
At the federal level, this year’s farm bill also gave a green light to state departments or universities wishing to grow hemp for research if their state allows it, but didn’t address any other legal issues — such as obtaining viable seed.
Since hemp farming was outlawed in the late 1950s, few hemp seeds exist within the country.
“We’re still getting through that hoop,” said Veronica Carpio, a Boulder business owner and hemp farmer. “I have a Canadian farmer who is ready to sell me all the seed I want, but at this point I can only smuggle it across, which I’m not willing to do.”
Carpio was able to get a small amount of seed last year and planted it before the state created the legal process. This year, she registered to have one commercial acre and one research acre.
From last year’s crop, she is selling single seeds and is attempting to create a strain, the Colorado Star, which she hopes will become the first one certified in the state.
Because she is licensed as a seed distributor — as required of sellers of any type of seed — and only sells within Colorado, her sales of seed are legal, she said.
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Ryan Loflin attempted to get ahead of the game last year by planting the first large crop of hemp — nearly 60 acres in Baca County.
“It did well,” Loflin said. “We were just happy to get it harvested, especially since none of these seeds have been tested in Colorado. These cultivars didn’t exist here before, so a lot of this is experimental.”
Loflin did have trouble getting seed last year but was able to get two strains — one from Europe and another from Canada.
“It came down to working with the suppliers on getting everything past regulations and the DEA,” he said. “I had to basically smuggle it into the country little by little.”
Colorado officials are talking with federal agencies about creating a legal process to obtain seeds, but for now the state is not going to question where growers get them, Carleton said.
“Our only role at the department is basically to register growers and then do the inspections,” he said. “We really, at this stage, don’t have any role in helping them obtain seed or learning about where they got their seed.”
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In February, Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter to Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about the seed shortage and its illegal importation.
Colorado State University officials, who are also in talks with the government, said they are interested in exploring research projects they can lead, but they first want to resolve legal questions such as where to get seed. CSU communications director Kyle Henley said the issues may be worked out in the next “couple of weeks or months.”
Farmers who want to grow hemp for commercial or research purposes have to register with the state before May 1. Last month, the first month the registration was open, 13 farmers registered to grow hemp. The state Department of Agriculture will test one-third of the registered farms to ensure they don’t exceed the allowed 0.3 percent THC level that the international industry uses to define hemp.
During World War II, the U.S. government at one point required farmers in many states to grow hemp through the Hemp for Victory program. The country, cut off from traditional fiber supplies from Asia, was in need of fiber for ropes, clothes and other textiles.
But later concerns about the hemp’s relation to marijuana caused the government to ban the crop.
Now the industry estimates that annual U.S. retail sales of all hemp-based products, the majority of which are imported, may be nearly $500 million.
It’s that economic opportunity that has attracted a variety of farmers from the state to try growing hemp.
“While it is more involved than I first thought, I am still interested in the possibility of growing industrial hemp,” said Dick Blumenhein, a Boulder resident who farms in Saguache. “But it probably won’t be overnight.”
Yesenia Robles: 303-954-1372, yrobles@ denverpost.com or twitter.com/yeseniarobles