When Neil Reiten grew hemp this year for the first time on his North Dakota farm, he knew the crop would get his neighbours talking.
He also knew it would attract the attention of the U.S. government, specifically the FBI.
Reiten and his employees were fingerprinted and put through background checks and FBI officers gave them a direct warning.
“They straight out told us, ‘we will be watching you very closely.’ ”
Reiten was one of about 35 North Dakota farmers who participated in a pilot project to grow industrial hemp in 2017. Those farmers seeded more than 3,000 acres of hempseed, up dramatically from the five North Dakota farmers who were limited to 15 acres each in 2016, the first year of the pilot.
Reiten applied to grow 400 acres, and state officials gave him permission to seed a more precise amount: 312.5 acres.
“I didn’t even question it. I was granted the opportunity and took what I could,” said Reiten, who farms 10,000 acres in Petersburg, N.D., growing corn, soybeans, canola, wheat and other crops.
The North Dakota farmers in the pilot project had to jump through extensive regulatory hoops be-cause hemp is still treated like a controlled substance in the United States, thanks to its association with cannabis.
In Reiten’s case, the hassle was worth it because he wants to add another crop to his rotation and explore other ways to add value to his farm business.
“The world is full of corn and beans and wheat,” he said. “I personally was … seeking something new and sustainable, and hemp is just really exciting.”
Hemp may be an experiment for other North Dakota producers but Reiten has already turned his crop into a new business called Legacy Hemp.
He imported the hempseed variety X-59 from Terramax, a crop research and development company in Qu’Appelle, Sask.
After harvesting a crop this fall, Reiten is now a seed dealer for industrial hemp in North Dakota.
“My sole purpose (of production) is for certified seed for sale for spring of 2018.”
Reiten is clear about why he is growing hemp: for crop diversity and to develop a value-added business. Nonetheless, he still gets plenty of questions.
His least favourite is also the most common.
“What are you going to do with it? Make rope?”
Reiten sees a bright future for hemp in North Dakota and across the U.S., in spite of the ignorance.
“Is the mindset changing? I be-lieve the world is changing. Younger minds are more open to newer ideas.”
Reiten’s business partner in Legacy Hemp is Ken Anderson, who lives near Minneapolis but across the state border in Wisconsin.
Anderson is a well-known advocate for hemp in the U.S. and this year he lobbied Wisconsin lawmakers to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp in that state. In October, Wisconsin’s agricultural committee in the state senate voted unanimously to approve the bill.
Fifteen states had hemp pilot programs or research programs in 2016, and 31 states have removed barriers to its production, says Vote Hemp, a lobby group.
Those pilot programs are now possible because the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill had a provision that permitted the cultivation of hemp for research purposes, to see if hemp farming would be beneficial for American farmers.
Canadian farmers have been growing hemp, under the jurisdiction of Health Canada since the late 1990s.
Anderson is convinced that hemp will soon be treated like any other crop in the U.S.
Legislation is moving through the U.S. Congress that will remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, he said.
“(It will) take the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) out of the equation and move it into the U.S. Department of Agriculture jurisdiction.”
If the legislation does pass, U.S. hemp acres could explode, but Canadian farmers shouldn’t worry, Anderson said.
Only .5 percent of Americans consume hemp foods so there’s a massive opportunity for market growth.
“If we take that to two percent, all of us could be producing, (more)” he said.
“The fact that more and more Americans are being turned on to the benefits of eating hemp … I think that both countries’ acreage could increase.”