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Stunted by heavy rainfall, an industrial hemp crop grows at the Langdon (N.D.) Research Extension Center on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

SD governor should get on board with possibilities of hemp

A measure to legalize industrial hemp production in South Dakota has been delayed after the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee deferred the bill at Republican Gov. Kristi Noem's request. The measure may instead be debated Feb. 28, which will give the governor's office more time to put together a fiscal analysis.

The governor publicly asked lawmakers to hold off until next year on House Bill 1191, a measure that passed overwhelmingly in the House by a 65-2 vote. Noem says the state "is not ready" for the crop, and she has concerns with permitting, enforcement and transportation of hemp. Noem added that if not done correctly, the state would be opening the door to allowing marijuana to be legalized.

However, even if the bill was passed, it would not go into law until July 1, and farmers would likely not be able to grow industrial hemp until the 2020 growing season. That begs the question, why would the governor, who is also a farmer, oppose legalization of a crop that looks to have so much promise?

While the economics of growing hemp remain a bit of an unknown because it's such a fledgling industry, farmers who have participated in North Dakota's pilot project have shown generally good returns. In 2016, four farmers grew hemp in North Dakota, with three of them making profits of more than $500 per acre, according to that state's Department of Agriculture. At a time when commodity prices are at historical lows, it seems like Noem would want to embrace any opportunity for farmers in South Dakota to diversify and find a way to make a profit.

It also seems a bit hypocritical for Noem to dash the legalization of a crop that she voted to legalize as part of the 2018 Farm Bill when she was South Dakota's representative in the U.S. House.

And we're more than a bit disappointed that Noem — who bills herself as "a lifelong farmer and rancher" and who touts her knowledge of agriculture — has taken a public position that clearly works against South Dakota agriculture. It's widely understood in ag circles that industrial hemp, which is very different from marijuana, is well suited for marginal land. It's widely understood in ag circles that industrial hemp potentially could generate profits for the hard-pressed South Dakota ag operators farming that land.

Industrial hemp once was widely grown in the U.S., and was treated like other crops by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But for decades, growing hemp wasn't allowed without a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Supporters say industrial hemp is a versatile, valuable crop that had been unfairly lumped together with marijuana, its so-called "bad cousin." They say you could smoke an entire field of industrial hemp without getting high, and stress that other industrialized countries allow its production.

It can be grown as fiber, seed or a dual-purpose crop. Its uses include food, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, fabrics, paper, construction and insulation materials, among many others.

Legislators in South Dakota have debated hemp legalization for years with little appetite to move forward, even though surrounding states like North Dakota and Minnesota have taken part in programs to grow the crop. However, with the green light on the federal level, they finally appear ready.

Noem has declined to say if she would veto the bill if it arrives on her desk. House Majority Leader Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, says they have enough votes to override a veto, but he doesn't think it will come to that. However, it is a head-scratcher as to why the governor would even waste political clout and energy trying to veto the bill, especially with the overwhelming support? We will have to wait until Feb. 28 or another day down the road to see if there will be a standoff between the governor and the Legislature.

Meanwhile, lawmakers think it's time the state moves forward with legalizing the crop, and most farmers and farm groups in the state agree. They say it could be a big opportunity for South Dakota, and farmers should be given the chance to try it.

We think Noem knows a lot about South Dakota agriculture. We think she genuinely wants South Dakota ag to succeed. That makes her stance against hemp legalization even more unfortunate. We urge her to reconsider and move forward the legalization of industrial hemp.