Hemp growing near Meaux, France. (Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

Montana hemp farmer can’t irrigate her crops under fed rules

HELENA, Mont. — Just outside a subdivision overlooking Lake Helena, a sandy, 12-acre field scattered with sagebrush and gopher holes lies almost barren. Sparsely strewn throughout the dry tilled field, little green sprouts no taller than an inch cling to the last bit of moisture from the spring rains.

Related: New Colorado hemp law protects farmers from federal overreach

They aren’t alfalfa sprouts, not bean sprouts, not anything one could find in a grocery store. They’re hemp — a close relative of marijuana — but with insignificant levels of the drug’s psychoactive effects.

Montana’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is underway for the first time this year, allowing approved farmers to grow the fibrous plant under oversight from the state Department of Agriculture. However, the little plants in the Helena Valley field are going without water due to conflicting regulations coming from federal and state authorities.

Kim Phillips moved here from Idaho, built a house, leased a field, licensed a business, spent two years navigating the bureaucracy to become a legal hemp grower through the pilot program and invested about $6,000 in this year’s crop. Rain provided enough water for the seeds to germinate, but as the heat of summer descended on her new farm, she hit her most dire roadblock yet.

Phillips was denied access to water by the Helena Valley Irrigation District on Thursday because her plants are ineligible for federally controlled water.

The Bureau of Reclamation, charged with regulating and distributing water from federal reservoirs, holds a statute banning the use of its water on federally controlled substances, which includes marijuana and its close relative, hemp, even if a state has legalized either of the substances.

Under the 2013 federal Farm Bill, states were allowed to license farmers to grow hemp for research by state agriculture departments and universities. The Montana Industrial Hemp Pilot Program followed these federal regulations, and Phillips was issued a license to grow hemp this year.

Phillips said everything was going well until she went to the irrigation district office to finalize everything after being “given the go-ahead” on June 15. Then she mentioned what crop she would be growing.

“That’s when the wheels fell off and everything came screeching to a halt,” she said.

The Montana Department of Agriculture is working with the Bureau of Reclamation and Phillips to resolve the problem, spokesman Andy Fjeseth said.

Phillips said she planned to truck in water from a well to keep the plants alive. Irrigation district officials said that would be illegal too, Phillips said, although they did not offer a legal explanation.

After two years of jumping through hoops and doing everything the right way, I just couldn’t believe water access is the problem,” Phillips said. “I’ll fight the government if I have to, but it certainly isn’t how I wanted to do this.”

Information from: Independent Record