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To Boost Hemp Farmers, Colorado Gives Stamp Of Approval To Seeds

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Luke Runyon
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KUNC/Harvest Public Media
Industrial hemp grows on a test plot maintained by Colorado State University in rural Larimer County.

Colorado agriculture officials are taking steps to make industrial hemp -- marijuana’s agrarian cousin  -- more mainstream. They’ve certified three hemp seed varieties, becoming the first state in the country to do so.

A seed certification is akin to a stamp of approval, letting farmers know the plant performs well in Colorado’s soil and climate.

The certification also ensures that farmers won’t break federal law by cultivating plants above the legal threshold for THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Hemp that tests above a concentration of 0.3 percent THC must be destroyed, according to state rules. That threshold was set in the 2014 Farm Bill.

The three certified varieties are all bred for their ability to produce long, flexible fibers for use in clothing and rope. Other hemp varieties are grown for their seeds, pressed into oil, or their high concentrations of cannabidiol and other non psychoactive compounds for use in medicine.

The 2014 Farm Bill opened up hemp production across the country, loosening restrictions against the plant’s growth, and allowing research universities and states to experiment with hemp and develop pilot programs to modernize its cultivation.

Colorado’s industrial hemp industry is still relatively small. In 2016 more than 200 growers farmed 5,800 acres of the plant, both in indoor greenhouses and outside on farm fields. Compare that to the more than 2 million acres of wheat grown in Colorado in 2014, or the more than 1 million acres of corn grown in the state.

The certification program should give reluctant or hesitant farmers more assurance that the varieties for sale will yield well, says Duane Sinning, who oversees the state’s industrial hemp program.

“We expect this [certification] to help move seed in hemp from a back room to the front room,” Sinning says.

Colorado has embraced industrial hemp faster than other states, with the creation of the certified seed program, and of a review panel to approve other hemp varieties.

“It means that you can be doing business at the same place, and when you buy your corn seed, you can buy your hemp seed,” Sinning says.

More varieties are in the pipeline for certification, Sinning says.

The state’s hemp growers are spread across Colorado, with concentrations of hemp fields in Delta, Montrose, Larimer, Weld and Boulder counties.  

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