SALINA — Reno County farmer PJ Sneed is among Kansans approved by the state to grow hemp, a previously forbidden crop he believes holds potential to economically benefit rural communities and promote environmental stewardship.
“After people figure out what they can do with it, Kansas is unlimited in what it can do,” said Sneed, owner of Always Sunny Hemp & Bee Farm.
Kansas farmers are growing the industrial variety of hemp this year in response to changes in federal and state law. Much remains to be learned about how the plant responds to local climate conditions and whether viable markets for the product will emerge.
Industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same species of plant, but federal law dictates legal hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Sneed grew up on a small family farm in southwest Kansas and became interested in hemp when he was employed in Wichita as a nurse.
This year’s harsh winter and spring’s torrential rains presented challenges for Sneed’s hemp farm. Temperature and precipitation can affect a plant’s THC level, he said.
“It’s been wet since last year through the fall,” he said. “Winter has taken its toll this year, particularly in Reno County.”
Nearly half a century ago, the Controlled Substances Act made possession or use of cannabis — hemp included — a crime. In the past decade, attitudes have softened about potential of hemp as an alternative crop.
The 2014 federal farm bill recognized the possibility by authorizing states to launch hemp research programs and allow colleges to grow industrial hemp.
Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican, signed into Kansas law a 2018 bill enabling the Kansas Department of Agriculture to create a hemp research program. In April, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill allowing farmers to eventually sell industrial hemp commercially.
Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, worked with a bipartisan coalition of legislators to secure legalization of industrial hemp. Johnson said the crop could provide valuable opportunities for Kansas farmers.
“It’s been exciting to see the effort that is going in and the folks that are willing to be the pioneers in the field,” he said. “We will learn a lot, and I really look forward to the next growing season and thank the people who tried to make this growing season work.”
The state Department of Agriculture approved applications for industrial hemp research licenses submitted by 157 Kansas farmers. Kansas State University is studying the crop at four research stations throughout the state.
Zac Hoppenstedt, a K-State horticulture extension agent in Johnson County, is assigned to the Olathe Horticulture Research and Extension Center. Hoppenstedt said the university’s examination of the crop had just begun.
“Hopefully, we’ll make any major mistakes through our research program, instead of the farmers who invest in the crop,” he said.
Johnson, the state representative, said farmers will quickly learn lessons about managing weeds and the amount of water required.
Sneed said farmers growing conventional crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat could plant hemp to remediate soil and take out pesticides. He said hemp uses less water than other crops and is particularly effective at taking carbon dioxide out of the air.
By the end of the year, university researchers and farmers plan to submit reports to state Department of Agriculture outlining what they learned about hemp. That analysis is to be shared with the public.
Under the research framework, farmers may not sell industrial hemp directly to consumers. Farmers who grow industrial hemp sell the crop to a licensed distributor, processor or state educational institution, said Braden Hoch, a state industrial hemp specialist.
Kansas producers may also sell hemp outside the state, but those transactions must comply with laws of other states and the federal government in terms of transportation, distribution and sale of hemp.
While Johnson isn’t sure how quickly markets for hemp products will develop in Kansas, he was convinced the hemp plant could be used to create paper, food products, building materials and oils.
Johnson said that type of product diversity ought to expand the number of Kansans producing hemp in 2020.
The development of market opportunities, which dictate profitability, remain a short-term question mark.
Jay Wisbey, a K-State crop production extension agent in the central Kansas district covering Saline and Ottawa counties, said there are financial uncertainties with hemp that potential producers need to weigh.
“You better be able to handle a lot of risk before you get in too deep,” he said. “I hope the people who got those licenses do OK, but I don’t see people getting rich by it by any means. We can produce a lot in a hurry, and you better find somebody to purchase it.”
Although Sneed acknowledges uncertainty in the hemp market presents a risk, he believes that in several years the hemp industry will see significant growth.
Hoch, the state agriculture department’s hemp specialist, said 33 of the 34 hemp processors licensed by the state of Kansas plan to transform hemp into CBD oil. It’s an over-the-counter medication used to treat pain, anxiety and sleeplessness.
There is little medical research into the effectiveness of CBDs, but businesses that sell the product say their clients have found it helps treat various conditions.
Sneed planted about 30 acres of hemp, which he anticipates will ultimately be used to make CBD oil.
Originally, he planned to use the hemp for fiber, but fiber has a smaller market than oil. Sneed plans to either process the hemp himself or sell the crop to a Kansas processor.
“There is no infrastructure,” he said. “We knew that if we made the switch, we would have to build our own infrastructure, from farm to extracting plant.”