Interest in hemp grows in Wyoming

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State lawmakers voted earlier this year to legalize industrial hemp in Wyoming. But many details must be sorted out before hemp becomes the newest cash crop in the state’s $2 billion agricultural sector.

It appears there’s plenty of interest in hemp, as seen in the response to the the third-ever Wyoming Agriculture Diversification Summit, taking place Thursday in Casper. The event has already sold-out once (they expanded the ticket sales after a waiting list had been instituted) and has already had to switch venues, moving to the tailor-made convention space downtown: all with very little advertising.

“It’s been very word-of-mouth,” said Christine Bekes, one of the event’s organizers and the executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership.

It’s an interesting development for a conference offering information on growing and selling a crop that’s not technically legal in Wyoming yet.

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp production nationwide, states have been racing to not only codify the legality of the non-psychoactive cannabis plant into their statutes, but to draft the plans required by the United States Department of Agriculture that are needed to begin growing it. Wyoming’s plan, which was submitted last week, officially kicks off what could be the first bonanza-type economic movement the state’s growers have seen in years.

However, efforts to set up stakes in Wyoming’s incoming industrial hemp sector have been ongoing for months.

With the February signing of House Bill 171, speculators and growers with an eye on shaping Wyoming’s newly established hemp industry have descended onto the state, drawn by the promise of new markets, new supply chains, and the promise of opportunities in a new business environment. Since the start of 2019, more than two dozen businesses with names playing off of or containing the word “hemp” have been filed with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, according to state records, a number of whom are coming from out-of-state to get an early piece of the action.

“A lot of the investment dollars that are interested in Wyoming are coming from businesses establishing themselves in Wyoming and/or partnering with Wyoming companies or growers to do business in Wyoming, absolutely,” Bekes said. “Wyoming is definitely a market of interest, for a number of reasons.”

The lures of hemp

Wyoming technically passed legislation legalizing hemp cultivation in 2017, which at the time sparked significant excitement from the speculators who rushed to file limited liability companies in the months after. However, that legislation was never fully implemented.

After a false start two years ago, Wyoming’s growers at least seem poised to get started building something in the Equality State, even if nobody is sure of what the potential rewards will be.

According to recent figures compiled by the Denver-based trade publication, the Hemp Business Journal, Wyoming farmers are expected to be cultivating roughly 250 acres of industrial hemp by the end of next year, a number that is anticipated to increase to an estimated 3,300 acres by 2022.

While not a significant amount of acreage (Colorado and Kentucky – the national front-runners for total hemp production by acreage – combine for more than 25,000 outdoor acres licensed for hemp) any new industry for a state can make a noticeable impact on a state’s economy, said Sean Murphy, a Casper native and the publisher for the hemp publication.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a huge dent on the national scale, but the impact for Wyoming will be really significant,” he told the Star-Tribune. “It’s not every day that a new crop comes along. Wyoming might not be the most progressive state in regards to its hemp policy – other states have done this already – but that fact the state is going for it, I think that’s what’s exciting.”

To ensure a new industry’s success and growth, the first step is teaching locals and newcomers alike how best to capitalize on it.

Bekes said there are three outcomes her group pursues through the summits: to identify emerging and developing opportunities; to expand networks among businesses to identify opportunities people may not see; and to provide the private and public sector alike a chance to listen for prospective partnerships between industry and policy.

The list of registrants so far, Bekes said, is quite broad despite being so crop-specific, with growers, processors and researchers alike expected to be in attendance. Additionally, there is also a targeted investor and finance segment as bankers look to try and understand more about this new crop and find ways to invest and capitalize on whatever emerges.

Ultimately, Thursday’s meeting is about teaching the private sector how best to use the tools they’ve recently been handed to maximum effect.

 

“We know economic development doesn’t create jobs – business and industry creates jobs,” Bekes said.

But legalized hemp, said Casper Republican Rep. Bunky Loucks – who sponsored HB-171 in the House this year – is about more than opportunity for people out-of-state. It’s for local farmers as well, who may have been discouraged and harmed by the economics of the national agricultural market and need options to help diversify their holdings.

“The commodity crops are controlled by so few, and it’s just not profitable for them to grow them anymore,” said Loucks. “This is a product for them that will be profitable for the ag community.”

“This meeting on Thursday is going to be the start of this,” he added.

It’s about more than just farmers

The opportunities for hemp in Wyoming don’t just lie with the cultivation of the plant: it also comes with the value-added industries that can emerge on the side.

While numerous states are already cultivating hemp, Murphy said it’s important for entrepreneurs to recognize the other opportunities that are available to capitalize on all the industry has to offer. Beyond growing hemp, building a successful, diversified hemp industry involves growing the infrastructure around the producers as well – making an effort to not just focusing on growing hemp for CBD extraction or to ship elsewhere, but to capitalize from as many stages of the supply chain as possible. This can look like developing a hemp-processing industry in Wyoming to create locally-made fabric, for example, or building a plant that can process hemp fiber and grain for food products.

“That’s what it really takes to build a market of hemp,” Murphy said.

But the market, he added, won’t come overnight: it takes time, work, and the smart investments needed to ensure Wyoming isn’t just growing plants – it’s growing an industry.

“I don’t think hemp is the end-all,” said Bekes. “While we’re not the first state at the table, we’re definitely not the last, and we’re definitely giving our growers a chance to do good work. What I love about this conversation that hemp has initiated is that we now have all these new faces at the table from a business perspective that, I think, will really elevate the conversations in general for our agriculture economy and our agriculture businesses. While hemp itself is interesting and exciting, there’s also this energy around hemp for what it’s going to bring to our Ag economy, which could no doubt use a boost.”

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