Hemp, hop crops generate strong buzz at Farmfest

Dana Ferguson
Forum News Service

MORGAN, Minn. — Minnesota farmers could soon grow more of the hops that flavor craft beers and industrial hemp used to produce CBD oils and lotions.

Exhibitors at Farmfest, the annual agriculture trade show near Redwood Falls, showed off small plots of the crops on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. But they were upfront with farmers that they need to do some research and be ready to put work in before choosing to grow hops or hemp.

Anthony (Tony) Cortilet, supervisor of the state’s industrial hemp program, said interest in the crop has grown significantly in the pilot program’s first four years. More than 300 farmers grow crops of varying sizes, totaling more than 8,000 acres.

The hemp seeds and grains can be used to produce food, the stalk can be used to make rope and textiles and female flowers of the plant can be used to make cannabidiol or CBD, an extract used to address various health issues. The FDA does not recognize these products but several vendors sell them.

Growing industrial hemp became legal under state pilot programs as part of the 2014 Farm Bill and corresponding state legislation the next year. And in 2018, the federal Farm Bill legalized growing hemp for commercial purposes, blowing up the demand for the new crop.

The number of licensed hemp growers in the state grew from 43 in 2018 to 310 in July of this year. And that demand continues to grow, Cortilet said. Three people run the program now and haven’t been able to keep up with the requests, he said. But interested individuals will soon be able to apply for a license online.

Cortilet said that before farmers or prospective growers take the dive, they should familiarize themselves with the laws governing hemp, check out the Department of Agriculture’s website and talk to someone growing hemp now.

“Research is the main message I tell everyone, then maybe plan to start small and learn the first year or two,” Cortilet said. “There are farmers who will shoot straight with them.”

If the plant produces too high a concentration of THC, the compound in marijuana that can create the high feeling, the plants could run afoul of federal law. And those who’ve been indicted on drug-related felony decades in the last decade are ineligible to be licensed to grow industrial hemp.

“That’s really the one restriction and it is a deterrent,” Cortilet said.

Various hemp processors, including some who produce cannabidiol or CBD products, met with farmers at the trade show and encouraged them to reach out to them for additional information as well.

“Talk to someone who has grown before,” Parker Smith, of Sweet Leaf Labs, said. “It’s not as easy as a lot of people say.”

A day earlier, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson at a congressional listening session at Farmfest said hemp’s future as a Minnesota crop could be promising, but it could also burn out if not enough processors step in to buy the plants.

“I think there’s more interest in hemp than anything I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said. “If everybody buys hemp that is talking about it, you are going to collapse that market and screw that up.”

“This could be the Jerusalem Artichokes of our generation or be careful,” Peterson continued.

Another trendy crop, hops, got some attention at Farmfest, where vines of months-old plants grew up toward the top of wooden beams.

“If you’re looking for a boom crop, there are none,” Eric Anderson, of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association told farmers visiting his booth on Thursday.

Anderson said that while an IPA with Minnesota-grown hops sounds nice in theory, it’s a tough ask right now. Hops were developed in the western United States and farmers have faced challenges growing them in Minnesota.

Hops can be subject to mold or flavoring issues that make them taste like onions, not a great flavoring for a new brew. Anderson said farmers willing to put in the work and the time could see strong demand from Minnesota brewers that want to use locally-grown hops.

Anthony (Tony) Cortilet, the supervisor of the state’s industrial hemp program, speaks with farmers about the nearby hemp crop, on Aug. 8 at Farmfest in Morgan, Minn.
A pair of farmers checked out hop vines on Aug. 8 at Farmfest in Morgan, Minn.