Why Texas farmers aren't cashing in on hemp

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Wichita Falls was slated to become home to the nation's largest hemp processing plant, which may still come to pass, but area farmers are taking a cautious approach to the new crop.

"I guess the short story is people were very interested, but what we've come to learn is that we are so far from where we need to be on being able to do that on a wide scale it's going to be a slow, slow process," said Wichita County Extension Agent David Graf.

Texas legalized growing hemp 2019 following an 80-year federal ban because the plant contains a small amount of the same chemical that gives marijuana its high. Hemp is marketable because it can used in the manufacture of textiles and other products.

Texas farmers have been reluctant to give the new crop a wholehearted embrace, with only 5,000 acres harvested the first year it was legal.

"We're where we were on wheat varieties 50, may 100 years ago. We don't know which varieties work, what doesn't," Graf said.

He said some of the varieties tried so far come from Poland, Australia, Italy, Canada and other locations.

"There's no place that's been growing hemp in the climate we're in. We're having a lot of issues with those varieties. They're just not adapted to this part of the world," Graf said.

Another issue is price, he said.

"The prices they were telling farmers was about 8 or 9 cents a pound. So on an average yield, or a little above average, you weren't going to make any more than you were for cotton," he said.

There's another sticking point.

"We've got crop insurance for cotton we don't have any kind of crop insurance for hemp," Graf said.

Soon after hemp farming was legalized, Dallas-based Panda Biotech announced it would buy the old Delphi plant on North Central Freeway in Wichita Falls and convert it into a huge hemp-processing facility. Panda is poised to get a hefty incentive package from the City of Wichita Falls in exchange for creating jobs at the facility.

Earlier this month Panda withdrew its bid to get $100 million in state bond money to buy the plant. Although Panda resubmitted a bid, a state deadline in August means the company is unlikely to have the plant operating soon.

Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Henry Florsheim said the move was merely a financing issue and affirmed Monday that this change did not affect Panda's plans to open the plant in the Wichita Falls area. 

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