CHEYENNE – A bill soon to be put into effect allowing Wyoming farmers to grow hemp gives them tools to diversify their agriculture operations, according to local farmer Ron Rabou.
Rabou of Cheyenne strongly lobbied the Legislature in the last session to approve House Bill 230. He joined Deborah Palm-Egle and Josh Egle, both of Denver, who started the push to allow hemp farming. Palm-Egle owns farm land near Albin where she was raised. Albin is a town about 50 miles northeast of Cheyenne.
Rabou operates Rabou Farms, an organic farming operation also near Albin. He farms about 8,000 acres, some of it his own and other land that is leased. He also farms Palm-Egle’s land.
The bill will allow farmers to plant, grow and sell industrial hemp for experimentation and research, all under the close direction of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
The Legislature approved the bill near the close of the session in early March. It became law without the signature of Gov. Matt Mead.
“Hemp has so much potential because of the products that can be created from it,” Rabou said.
“Hemp can be used in many products, including plastics, textiles, construction materials, insulation, car panels, fiberboard and diesel fuel,” Rabou said.
The bill is a huge boost for Wyoming agriculture as well as for farmers and landowners, Rabou said.
“The United States is the largest commercial and consumer marketplace for hemp in the world. But we’re the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t allow farmers to grow it,” he added.
The federal government banned farmers across America from growing hemp in 1937. At the time, it was considered a drug like marijuana. Hemp is still listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government. But while it is a type of cannabis, it does not contain anywhere near the amount of psychoactive properties as other cannabis strains.
Marijuana, for example, contains 15 to 30 percent THC, the psychoactive compound in the plant, but hemp only has 0.3 percent THC.
Several states have started hemp farming programs since 2014, when a federal law allowed states to produce hemp under the direction of a college or agricultural department. Thirty states have passed bills about industrial hemp.
The Wyoming bill authorizes the Department of Agriculture to develop pilot programs with farmers to help produce the hemp plant so that the ag department can do research. Farmers would have to get a license first from the Department of Agriculture. They would also have to pass a criminal history background check.
The bill was scheduled to take effect in July, but the Legislature agreed to delay it until July 2018. Rabou doubts anything will occur until 2019.
That’s because before the program starts, the Department of Agriculture must buy equipment to test hemp and make sure it doesn’t contain THC levels higher than 0.3 percent, Derek Grant said, the agriculture department’s public information officer.
The machine will cost between $300,000 and $400,000, which is money the department doesn’t have now, Grant said. The department also has to train someone to do the testing.
“The bill is an unfunded mandate,” Grant said, which means it doesn’t include money to carry out directions.
“As it stands now, we don’t have the available funds necessary to implement the program,” Grant said. “We’re probably about two years out at least from implementing an actual program.”
Employees at the ag department are putting together rules and regulations for the bill and doing other duties to get the process rolling.
Gov. Matt Mead said he didn’t sign the bill because he wanted to highlight an inconsistency with the federal law.
“I’m OK with it becoming law,” he said. “I don’t want to create a conflict (between the federal and state bill) and get farmers into trouble.”
Rabou said hemp is a commodity that has a tremendous economic potential, while the marijuana movement is more about personal choices.
Josh Egle agreed with that.
“The face of hemp is not going to be hippies and stoners, but farmers. If people of Wyoming embrace this bill and support it and farmers embrace it and support it, there is an opportunity for Wyoming to emerge as one of the leaders in this industry,” he said.