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Nebraska Hemp

In this 2013 file photo, a woman stands in a hemp field at a farm in Springfield, Colo. 

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture announced this week that growers and businesses filed 176 applications to participate in the newly established industrial hemp 2019 growing season.

Some people think that was much more than expected. Others believe there could have been more, but for the limitations placed on the newly approved alternative crop by the state.

The agriculture department opened the application process June 28 and gave growers, businesses and corporations only a week to file applications. The department has not said how many were approved, but at least those who were not chosen in the apparently random selection of approved applications have been notified. 

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said he's had multiple people contact him to say they won't be allowed to participate in the hemp program this year. 

Wayne, who introduced the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act (LB657), said he was concerned the governor and the department slow-walked the process and forced farmers to have to choose whether to take a chance on a hemp crop project or plant something else.

It didn't make sense in the current ag economy to have to wait until late July to put seeds in the ground, he said.

But Wayne said his bigger concern is that so many people have been denied.

Diane Mulder, who has a farm near Firth, is one of those who applied and was turned down. She said she found out late Wednesday that her proposal to grow a quarter-acre patch of a hemp strain for a CBD oil was denied.

Mulder said the state seemed to throw up obstacles for growers and businesses to get approvals, with the one-week-only time frame to apply, and requiring a background check that the State Patrol said would take five business days to get. She was able to apply because she found a place online to get a background check faster.

Mulder attended a Midwest Hemp forum last month in David City, where many of those present were frustrated with the process.  

She is hoping now there will be wider approval in January and she can participate. 

"I want to just jump in and try it and get to know more about it," she said. "I am just so impressed by how many products can come off of a hemp plant."

That includes food, CBD oil, fuel, fiber and wood products. Another benefit is that its root system can pull impurities out of the soil, she said. 

"To think about what an impact that can have on our country as a whole, that's really an exciting thing to think about," Mulder said.  

LB657 was signed into law May 30, and no one was quite sure how many would apply for the first growing season. Many speculated a much-lower number than 176. 

"Wow, I guess that shows a very high level of interest," said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. "It's an extraordinarily large number for the short time frame."

The Nebraska Hemp Farming Act went into effect as soon as it was signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The law, which Wayne worked on extensively, recognizes the plant as a viable agricultural crop and aligns state law with federal law — industrial hemp was legalized in the 2018 farm bill — regarding its cultivation, handling, marketing and processing. It is meant to open up new commercial markets for farmers and businesses through sale of hemp products.

The agriculture department has reporting and enforcement requirements under the law. Plants are required to be submitted for testing to determine whether they contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive drug in marijuana.

Wayne said the department wanted only 10 licenses approved this year. Supporters in the Legislature wanted 1,000 applicants and to approve at least 400 to 500.

Wayne's trust with the department is gone, he said. If 176 applied, there's no reason why 176 couldn't be approved.

Nebraska will be behind surrounding states, he said. He's had two companies call him to say they are now looking at Iowa, and potentially Texas, for hemp manufacturing. 

"We need those jobs here," he said.

Wayne said he was one of those who applied on the manufacturing side, doing so just so he could observe the process. He was turned down.

According to the Kansas Rural Center, as of May 10, that state has approved 202 industrial hemp licenses, for 150 growers, 15 distributors, 30 processors and seven universities. More than 3,605 acres will be planted in the first year, representing 61 counties.

Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, who is a farmer, said he didn't think even as many as 176 would apply, so was pleased to see the interest. 

The normal planting date would be June 1 for this crop, he said, but it could still be planted in July, if all goes well and growers can beat the first frost.

Robert Byrnes manages Nebraska Screw Press in Lyons, which is focused on development of oil seed-processing systems throughout the United States, and Central and South America. 

Byrnes didn't like the short window for applications set up by the state.

"After all these years of fighting for hemp in Nebraska, getting one week to apply was a slap in the face," Byrnes said.

He wasn't able to get an application in on time because the one-week window opened while he was on a family vacation, he said. As a process supplier, he was hoping to be able to process seeds, or at least process samples for customers.

"I have sold many systems all over the country and can't believe how restrictive the environment is here," Byrnes said. "Other states are handing out funds and grants. Here you are lucky if they let you (even participate)."

He questioned why the department was still calling hemp crops a pilot program on the application.

"Why the state is so dead against diversifying agriculture I have no idea," he said. "But I bet I can track it down to the paranoia reminiscent of the old 'reefer madness' mentality."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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