Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin handles a batch of a particular hemp seed that produces vast amounts of oil for use in cooking and other applications. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s first legal hemp crop comes in amid constraints by federal laws

Ask farmers where they procured hemp seeds to plant last spring, and you may get an answer like this one from Bill Billings: “I got them from Mother Nature and God. That’s all I can say.”

Don’t-ask, don’t-tell characterizes Colorado’s newest cash crop. Like its genetic cousin marijuana, hemp is legal under state law. But conflicts with federal law leave the future uncertain for the state’s hemp industry.

The plant looks like marijuana but has little or no THC, the psychoactive ingredient that makes pot smokers high.

The federal government’s prohibition on hemp was partially eased in the Farm Bill passed by Congress this year. Still, Colorado growers have no legal means to buy starter seed from out of state, nor to sell their harvested raw seed outside of Colorado.

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Some growers are using Colorado’s hemp laws to cultivate ultra-low-THC cannabis for use in medical marijuana extracts, only adding to the confusion.

Legal hurdles aside, advocates are passionate about hemp’s commercial potential. The most common uses are food products and cosmetics derived from seeds and seed oil. Fiber from the stalks of hemp plants are used in clothing and industrial applications, including as a strengthening agent in concrete.

2014 marked the first year of state-authorized hemp cultivation in Colorado. About 30 growers filed applications to plant a total of 1,811 acres. But because state law does not yet require detailed reporting, no statistics exist on how much actually was planted and subsequently harvested.

Several farmers are planning to save seed from this year’s harvest to sow the 2015 crop.

On a former alfalfa field near Sterling, Billings, his daughter Danielle and business partner Jim Brammer planted 2 acres of hemp. Their harvest brought in nearly a ton of seed and flowers.

“It came up just amazing,” Billings said. “We irrigated three times, compared to six or seven times for (nearby) corn crops.”

Billings said he’s planning to make his own lines of hemp oils, lotions and mints, and he’s talking with retailers including Walmart and Whole Foods to carry the products.

But the same federal legal constraints that make it hard to buy seed also inhibit the creation of a large-scale Colorado hemp industry with interstate trade. Like marijuana entrepreneurs, hemp growers have limited or no access to banking services, said Lynda Parker, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association.

“To have a real industry with manufacturing and processing of hemp products, you can’t do that unless there’s a steady market for hemp,” Parker said. “And that can’t happen until we can access the banking system.”

Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, or

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