LINCOLN, Neb. — Two months after President Donald Trump signed a law to legalize hemp, Nebraska lawmakers and state agency officials are working together to help farmers get a piece of the market.
Lawmakers heard public input Tuesday on a bill that would allow farmers to grow and harvest hemp in Nebraska. Many have sought it as a way to diversify their crops in a climate that’s well-suited for it, but state officials haven’t decided exactly how to regulate it.
That could change with the December passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the crop but requires states to set rules on how it’s grown. Those that don’t will automatically defer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will require growers to participate in a federally run program.
“This is a growing market, and we need to allow our Nebraska farmers to have alternative crops,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha, said in testimony to the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee. “More importantly, people need to be able to participate in the manufacturing of (hemp) products.”
The Farm Bill requires states to impose a licensing or registration system for hemp, track the supply and conduct annual tests to ensure it contains legal levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the active compound in marijuana that allows users to get high. Hemp contains a negligible amount of the chemical, but if the levels in a batch rise above what’s allowed under law, states are required to have procedures in place to destroy it.
Wayne said he introduced it because he believes farmers and businesses are missing the opportunity and he sees it as an opportunity to draw processing plants to his north Omaha district, a strategic location near Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. He said he met recently with Gov. Pete Ricketts to decide how to proceed.
Ricketts said on his monthly radio call-in show Monday that his administration was still working with Wayne on a workable proposal.
The Republican governor has previously said his hands were tied because hemp was classified as an illegal and dangerous drug before the Farm Bill passed.
Nebraska Department of Agriculture Assistant Director Amelia Breinig said the agency needed more time to review and discuss the legislation but supports hemp as a commercial product. She said the bill is “a step in the right direction” and pledged to continue working with lawmakers.
Wayne said more than 25,000 products have been derived from hemp, from fabrics, food and rope to industrial oils and body-care products. He said 47 nations currently allow the crop, up from 30 when he first introduced the bill two years ago.
Hemp appeals to many farmers because it thrives in a variety of soils and environments, resists droughts and contains high levels of protein and health fats, said Andrew Bish, an executive with Bish Enterprises, a Giltner-based manufacturer of farm machinery that’s used to harvest hemp.
“This is truly a valuable commodity, and these are just a small fraction of its uses,” he said.
Roger Harmon, a western Nebraska farmer, said businesses and venture capitalists have approached him about growing hemp seeds on his land near the Colorado border and expanding the market statewide. With commodity prices down, Harmon said hemp would help farmers who are struggling.
“Soybeans, corn and wheat simply aren’t covering it for farmers anymore,” he said.
Nebraska has a long history of hemp production before it was outlawed in 1937 and the plant still thrives in the state, said University of Nebraska at Kearney economist Allan Jenkins. Jenkins, who has advocated for the crop, said Fremont had a hemp processing plant 120 years ago, and many farmers participated in a “Hemp for Victory” program during World War II to replace fabrics that were no longer coming from Asia.
“The growing conditions in Nebraska are so favorable for hemp that it has prospered without any chemicals or irrigation now for 75 years,” Jenkins said.