History’s lost cash crop: The state of hemp in Iowa

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As a close cousin to marijuana, hemp was swiftly and severely regulated and restricted with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. A part of Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” it placed cannabinoids like marijuana and hemp in the most dangerous category: “Schedule 1,” the most addictive substances with the least evidence of health benefits. That’s right alongside heroin, and above cocaine and meth.

Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants, but they are classified differently based on one important chemical—THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the intoxicating compound in cannabis that causes a high when introduced to the body. Hemp contains 0.3% or less of this chemical, making it non-intoxicating. Marijuana, however, can contain up to 30%. 

A plant that was once grown by George Washington at Mount Vernon (for its fibers, the founding fathers weren’t rolling jazz cigarettes) was now infamous in the public eye. The government that had once run “Hemp for Victory” films in World War II to encourage farmers to bolster the textile industry now hid that part of its history, the dangerous criminal implications of such a substance covering up its former economic and industrial viability. 

Until today, at least. In the past decade, laws concerning hemp and marijuana are starting to resemble those of pre-Nixon America. Both Presidents Obama and Trump signed Farm Bills in 2014 and 2018 that led to the legalization and decriminalization of hemp farming. Hemp-based products—dietary and commercial—have brought hemp back into the financial spotlight. Now is a better time than ever to see how Driftless locals are diving into the hemp world.

Hemp in Iowa

Hemp licenses have been available in Iowa for the past two seasons, making the hemp market new and uncharted territory for many farmers. Lansing landowner Jacob Johnson has been navigating those waters on his own property. He rents out his land to corn and bean farmers but keeps enough land to himself to grow hemp.

When Iowa began taking applications for the 2020 growing season, he signed up to be a part of the first round of hemp legally grown in Iowa since 1937. He started with 500 plants and learned some critical lessons along with the rest of Iowa’s hemp farmers.
Iowa’s current laws state that all hemp must test below 0.3% THC or have to be destroyed. THC levels in hemp plants can spike when plants are low on sunlight or nutrients.  About 13% of Iowa’s hemp crop in 2020 had to be burned for this reason, and Jacob didn’t make it out unscathed. 

“I did have to burn some of mine. Luckily it was only one strand out of five that tested high,” Johnson said. 

Due to Iowa’s laws concerning THC, farmers can only participate in “industrial” hemp farming. Industrial hemp has many uses, including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food, and fuel. Corey Coleman, owner of Hemp’d In LLC. in Cedar Falls, explained why the Midwest in particular favors industrial hemp.

“For Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota farmers, they have the larger wide-open acres, fields, that type of equipment, that the Midwest farmer is going to be better suited for,” Coleman, whose company provides hemp seed and industry support to farmers, said.

These two represent a larger community of hemp farmers, advocates, and activists in the Driftless Region and its surrounding communities.  Jacob is one of 14 licensed hemp growers in the Driftless, and Hemp’d In is one of seven hemp seed distributors in Iowa. Though they play very different roles in the hemp industry, both agree on a central issue facing the hemp community: processing.

The problem with processing

Once grown, medical cannabidiols (mCBD) are allowed to be sold to licensed persons and places, and non-dietary products can legally be sold, but there’s no place in Iowa for farmers to turn their plant into product. Johnson is lucky enough to have contacts out of state.

“I’ve only had a year of experience, but the biggest thing is being able to process it,” Johnson said. “I have a friend in California that’s in the legal marijuana industry, and he has friends who have processing centers, so that’s what I did with most of last years.”
Not every hemp farmer has connections like Johnson. Coleman explained that for many farmers, shipping their crop would be at a loss, and the state of Iowa hasn’t done much to remedy the situation.

“We’re lacking infrastructure from the industrial side,” Coleman said. “We need processing facilities that can decorrugate hemp, to make these different types of products. As far as Iowa, they’ve been slow on everything, so they haven’t done their farmers any favors in making sure there’s a sustainable hemp industry here.”

Coleman points out that it opens the door for plenty of snake oil salesmen to come in and take advantage of these fledgling hemp farmers. 

“Anytime there’s a new market emerging, there’s a lot of bad actors that show up and prey on others that are trusting and wanting to get into something new,” Coleman said. “Lack of regulation has certainly been a big cause for some of that. So, it’s gotten a bad taste in a lot of farmers mouths.”

The challenges haven’t scared Johnson off. He was expecting them as the industry get its wheels spinning but is confident Iowa will find its hemp-footing yet. “Being the first year, I think that’s going to be the case, but it’s also probably going to scare people off from getting into it initially,” Johnson said. “But I think with time and legality it’ll make it easier for us to do our work, that’s what really what needs to happen.”

All eyes will be on legislation when it comes to the future of hemp. As more and more states contemplate not only hemp, but recreational marijuana and their uses, farmers will need all the help they can to grow the industry to what it once was—in the eyes of the law, and the people.

“It’s a young industry, and I’ve got a lot of hope and faith in it, but there’s been a lot of propaganda for a lot of years that we have to reverse,” Coleman said. “We have to educate and tell the truth about hemp—it’s not the ‘devil’s lettuce.”

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