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Year No. 2 for hemp in Idaho

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – It’s year No. 2 for hemp in Idaho and it appears growers in the state will plant slightly more acres than they did last year.

According to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, a handful of farmers plan to plant 859 acres of hemp in the Gem State in 2023.

That compares to 680 hemp acres planted in the state last year, the first year that farmers were allowed to grow the crop in Idaho.

Nationwide, 28,314 acres of hemp were planted in 2022, down from 54,152 acres in 2021, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Idaho was the last state in the nation to approve hemp production. While the state’s climate apparently makes Idaho a great place to grow hemp, it will likely take some time for hemp to become more that just an alternative crop in the state, says Tim Cornie, who grew several acres of hemp last year and plans to grow several more this year.

To give some perspective on hemp acres in the state, Idaho farmers typically plant more than 1 million acres of wheat and hay each year, and about 550,000 acres of barley, 350,000 acres of corn and 300,000 acres of potatoes.

For now, Cornie said, he and other growers are just dipping their toes in the water when it comes to growing hemp.
“We’re just getting a feel for it and learning the dos and don’ts,” he said. “But I do see this crop getting a lot bigger in Idaho.”

Cornie is owner of 1000 Springs Mill, an organic food company that contracts with growers in the area. The company produces hemp-based meal replacement bars and currently gets its hemp seeds from a Montana company.

Cornie believes Idaho is an ideal place to grow hemp and said he and other growers are currently experimenting with growing the crop locally. If the crop does take off in Idaho, 1000 Springs Mill, based in Buhl, would like to purchase its hemp seeds closer to home.

“Eventually we want to have growers who grow it locally here for us,” Cornie said. “That’s our plan.”

Learning the correct agronomic lessons of growing hemp is part of the growing pains Idaho farmers need to go through, Cornie said.

For example, Cornie planted hemp at a rate of 20 pounds an acre last year but will up that to 30 pounds an acre this year, in order to get a better stand.

“We need a little thicker stand than what we had last year,” he said. “And we’re going to plant two different directions – 15 pounds one way and 15 pounds the other way. Crisscross it to choke those weeds because we’re organic and have to do that.”

Cornie also used a grass drill to plant last year rather than a regular grain drill, which wasn’t ideal.

“That was a mistake; we had to do a replant,” he said.  “We should have drilled it with a regular grain drill.”

“We are the right climate and we have the right soils for hemp,” Cornie said. “The only thing we did wrong the first year is we didn’t get our plant population to where I wanted it. If the stand had been a little thicker, we would have really killed it.”

Industrial hemp products have always been sold legally in the United States but not until the 2018 farm bill was passed was it legal to grow and process hemp commercially in the U.S.

The hemp products sold in the U.S. previously came from other countries.

Industrial hemp, by federal law, must not exceed 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive compound that gets a user of marijuana high. According to experts, it is impossible to get high from industrial hemp.

Idaho’s hemp program, as required by federal law, has safeguard to ensure hemp grown in the state does not exceed that 0.3 percent THC threshold.

If plants in a hemp field test above that 0.3 percent THC threshold, they must be destroyed. Last year, five hemp lots in Idaho had to be destroyed because they exceeded that level, said Sydney Plum, public information officer for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Of the 680 hemp acres planted in Idaho last year, 445 were harvested, which worked out to a 65 percent success rate. Nationwide, that same harvest rate last year was 64 percent.

Idaho’s first hemp season was an opportunity for the ISDA, which is charged with regulating hemp, to learn how to best allocate time and resources toward the program, said Casey Monn, the ISDA’s hemp bureau chief.

Last year “served as an opportunity to educate industry and the general public on regulatory requirements, in addition to allowing ISDA to efficiently establish our role,” Monn said.

While 1000 Springs Mill is interested in hemp as a seed for human consumption, the crop can also be grown for fiber.

Idaho-based Hempitecture earlier this year opened a 33,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Jerome County that uses hemp as the main ingredient in fiber insulation products for the building industry.

For now, Hempitecture is sourcing its hemp from other states and Canada but, like 1000 Springs Mill, the company does see a future where it gets much of its hemp from Idaho growers.

Hempitecture is using about 36,000 pounds of hemp every two weeks, said Mattie Mead, the company’s owner and founder.

“We do see a future where ideally we’re sourcing (a lot) of our hemp from Idaho,” he said.

But he believes that will take time and won’t necessarily happen quickly.

“I think hemp is more of a long-term play in Idaho,” he said. “Where I see it fitting in is as a rotational crop.”

That will happen, he added, as more research on the crop is done, both in Idaho and nationally. As that happens, hemp production and usage will grow, he said.

“We’re still so early in the reintroduction of this crop to the United States and there is still a lot of research and testing that needs to be done to ensure farmers’ risk is mitigated,” Mead said. “We’re still in the process of learning what genetics work well, what cultivars work well. And we’re learning more about the farm-level infrastructure.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be an overnight sensation,” he said. “I see it as an opportunity that will grow over time, especially as the research comes out that substantiates some of the claims and beliefs that industrial hemp is a great rotational crop that rejuvenates soil quality and provides a number of other benefits.”

He pointed out that industrial hemp can be used in thousands of products.

“There are so many uses for industrial hemp and we’re just scratching the surface of it here in the United States,” Mead said.