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Moving forward

FARGO, N.D. - This week, North Dakota's administrative rules committee reviews regulations for growing industrial hemp in the state. The rules passed a major hurdle in mid-November, when state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem informed state Agric...

FARGO, N.D. - This week, North Dakota's administrative rules committee reviews regulations for growing industrial hemp in the state. The rules passed a major hurdle in mid-November, when state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem informed state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson that the regulations comply with state law.

Johnson says he doesn't expect the rules committee to make any significant changes at its Dec. 4 meeting. Once approved, the regulations will be published and could take effect as soon as Jan. 1.

License applications

Johnson expects applications to start coming in soon after the first of the year.

Republican state Rep. David Monson says he'll be among the first to apply for a license.

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"I don't anticipate that the license will go very far," Monson admits. "The DEA will probably have a problem with it, and at that point we'll just stop and see where we're at."

Monson has waited a long time just to have the opportunity to apply for a license. He was at the forefront of the state Legislature's effort to write a state law making hemp production legal.

Monson, who farms near Osnabrock, N.D., says hemp is a crop that would improve his op eration. "We have a lot of rocks here, which really limits the kinds of row crops we can use," he explains.

"Sugar beets and potatoes don't do well for us. We've tried soybeans, too, but even they were marginal."

Monson say hemp is hardier than other broadleaf crops, and by adding it to his crop rotation, he could avoid the scab problems that arise from growing grain on grain on grain.

Crop value

Johnson agrees. "From an agronomic standpoint, industrial hemp is a very good crop for people to put into their rotation. It grows so fast that it crowds out almost all competition, so the folks that grow it use zero pesticides.

"I would think the organic community might be interested in it for that very reason," Johnson continues. "It also strikes me that it may have significant long-term potential for biomass production."

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Hemp critics claim that growing hemp is the easy part. The biggest challenge lies in getting it to a processing facility, since there are so few currently operating in the United States.

"The whole industry has to grow at the same time," Johnson concedes. "It's not just like growing another crop that you can haul to the elevator. Everything has to sort of grow simultaneously, and that's going to take a little longer."

Local processing

Still, Johnson insists there are companies eager to process North Dakota grown hemp.

He says processing facilities on the West Coast currently import all of their raw hemp product. In addition to shipping costs for the bulky fiber, imported hemp seed must be rendered nonviable before entering the United States, meaning some processing must be done overseas before import.

"You've got significant additional expense that's required before they even start working with the stuff, so if it's grown domestically, the hope is that they would eventually get to the point where they can avoid those costs," Johnson says.

The North Dakota Agriculture Department held hearings this summer on the proposed hemp rules, and Johnson says, at that time, a processor from central North Dakota expressed interest in processing hemp materials grown within the state.

"That was a very pleasant surprise because it indicated that potentially there's a place where we could render the seed nonviable and wouldn't have to do this tracking of the seed all the way to where it eventually winds up," he remarks.

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Canadian influence

Meanwhile, Monson has visited with growers and processors in Canada to get a feel for how the industry might work in the United States. He says he assured growers north of the border that North Dakota hemp would not flood the market, and in fact, could strengthen Canada's efforts.

He'd like to see North Dakota seize some of the economic development rewards Manitobans seem to be reaping from their hemp harvest.

"It will bring some value-added business opportunities to rural areas," he predicts, suggesting hemp fiber might be combined with other materials to produce fiberboard.

"It's similar to flax straw," he explains. "Right now, most of our flax straw goes to Canada. My hope is that we would be able to create jobs right here with that kind of venture."

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