By Noura Elmanssy on Jul 5, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.
John Strohfus, owner of Strohfus Stock Farm in Hastings, grows a lot of things, but recently with the help of his partners Ben Thurmes and Ken Anderson, he’s added hemp to his list and made some history doing it.
Eighteen acres of hemp was planted on June 17 in Hastings. It was the first time since 1950 that hemp has been intentionally planted in the state of Minnesota.
The trio, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), is participating in the Hemp Pilot Program, which aims to show how viable hemp could be in the Minnesota market.
“I thought it would be a new and exciting crop,” Strohfus said. “It was something that would be a good fit for our small acreage.”
The pilot program that was announced in March of this year allowed the growth of hemp as long as the crop could be monitored by the MDA, Strohfus explained. The program is an effort “to study the growth, cultivation, or marketing of industrial hemp,” according to the Minnesota statute on industrial hemp development.
While other farms are involved, Strohfus has the biggest planting.
Strohfus, Thurmes and Anderson all graduated from Hastings High School but didn’t get in touch until later in their farming careers. Strohfus and Thurmes had partnered in some farming ventures, and Strohfus reached out to Anderson, who knew a lot about the industry, when he had realized this can be done in Minnesota.
“(Anderson) has been an advocate in the hemp industry for many years … he has also been an advocate for and a lobbyist for the legalization of hemp as an agricultural product and was involved with the first planting in the United States in 2015 in Kentucky,” Strohfus said.
They submitted a proposal in April to the MDA and by May, they were approved and signed a contract. Strohfus said they had to wait some time before the seed arrived. When it did, a donation of grain drills from Value Implement of Ellsworth, Wisconsin, and Niebur Implement of Miesville made planting easy.
What is hemp?
Hemp, sometimes known as industrial hemp, is a variety of the cannabis plant. There are two forms of hemp, industrial and food grade. Industrial hemp can be used for fiber, straw, construction materials and more. Hemp for grain production is used for the food supply chain. Strohfus said that they are planting the grain variety. Food grade hemp seeds can be used in a variety of dishes like cereal or salads and is used to make hemp seed oil, a possible substitute for traditional cooking oils.
“They’re easy to eat and cook with, and they have a pleasantly nutty taste, like a cross between a sunflower seed and a pine nut,” Christina Chaey wrote in an article for Bon Appétit.
Cannabis is most commonly associated with marijuana, as the cannabis plant is the same species that produces the drug. Hemp and marijuana, however, are two separate products.
According the National Hemp Association’s website, “one of the biggest misconceptions is believing that industrial hemp is the same thing as marijuana. The two plants are from the same species but are more like first cousins and NOT identical twins.”
“Industrial hemp and marijuana are cousins of each other but they’re really apples and oranges as far as plants goes,” Strohfus said. “So much, in fact, that one of the concerns with law enforcement was that people may come out to a field of industrial hemp and try to hide marijuana in the middle of it because you can’t distinguish the plants between each other by just looking at the leaf structure; however, industrial hemp will actually kill off marijuana and so they can’t co-exist in the same, same area.”
Due to its association with the cannabis plant, hemp became illegal in the United States through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Although hemp has a very low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level, which is what gives marijuana its potency, was still considered a threat and was banned from then on.
As a part of the pilot program, Strohfus explained, a license had to be purchased through the MDA in order to sell and market the product freely. The money paid goes to monitoring the plant by taking tissue samples to ensure the THC level is below the required 0.3 percent.
“Our hope is that in the coming 12 months, at the federal level, that hemp will be removed from the drug enforcement agency’s schedule one narcotic list,” Strohfus said, “and will no longer be listed as a narcotic and or listed specifically different from its cousin, marijuana, and that way state licensure will no longer be needed to regulate it, it would be a free market, agriculture product like corn, beans, wheat or oats. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Where is the U.S. hemp industry now?
With the help of the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Bill of 2014, hemp was recognized as a crop and states were given the authority to grow hemp as long as they also developed a research program to study the growth and cultivation of the plant.
As of 2015, Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont and Oregon had all begun to grow hemp, joining 14 other states that produce hemp.
“Our (Minnesotan) soils are very conducive to growing hemp,” Strohfus said, “and you know, historical data – it’s been documented that Minnesota and Wisconsin had some very, very good hemp yields back in the 30s, 40s, 50s until it was banned and also the varieties that have been developed now in Canada – Canada soil types are similar so we’re planting a Canadian variety.”
Canada started to research the crop in 1994 and it remains a very popular location for hemp, along with other countries like Romania, the largest commercial producer of hemp in Europe.
With the addition of programs like the hemp pilot program in Minnesota, Strohfus said he hopes to make this crop once again viable in the farming industry.
“All three of us have a pretty good vision around that we want to make this a Minnesota soil-to-shelf product,” he said. “We don’t want to ship it to California for processing. We’d like to figure out a way to work with Minnesota partners and get it on store shelves in Minnesota within this first year.”
With the largest planting in the program now in the ground, Strohfus said that monitoring the product is the next step and making sure the logistics are developed in order to have a successful market.
“Other farmers will be able to feel confident that they can actually recover and profit from the grain as they could bean or corn,” he said.
Establishing a market for hemp will be a challenge, he said, but if successful, it stands to be well worth the effort.
“… The profit margins will be much higher than the current margins for corn or beans or other smaller grain crops, wheat and oats as well,” he said.
Overall, Strohfus said that the journey has been filled with learning and growth and hopes that this program impacts the hemp industry in Minnesota.
“It’s been really, really fun so far, we expect to learn a lot,” Strohfus said. “Hopefully we can actually get the packaging and the placement on the store shelf, that would be the ultimate bonus, but if we can at least get to a successful yield, successfully cleaned grain and be able to market that to the current buyers, that would be good enough and then getting it on the shelf would be the ultimate prize for this year.”