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Colorado Hemp Growers Begin Historic Planting Season

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

An historic planting of Colorado’s first state regulated industrial hemp crop is underway. More than 70 applications to grow the towering cousin of marijuana have come in to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Hemp plants look similar to marijuana because of their leaf shape, but the plant lacks the intoxicating chemical compound THC. It’s instead grown for its fiber and oil.

Hemp seeds increasingly are being included in cereals, granola bars and protein powders. Hemp oil shows up in personal hygiene products like lotions and salves. The plant’s fibers can be processed into clothing, rope, even automobile interior fabric.

Because the plant is still illegal at the federal level, Colorado law requires growers register with the state. Hemp’s been receiving considerable hype since voters approved its cultivation along with recreational marijuana in 2012. Proponents call it a “miracle crop,” able to withstand drought conditions and with probable untapped market potential.

“Let’s face it. There’s no market. We’re not cultivating hemp on a large scale right now in this country,” Colorado Department of Agriculture deputy commissioner Ron Carleton says. “You can’t really speak too much about commodity prices because there’s no market.”

Pair that market volatility with a shortage of seed. Some growers report spending five dollars per seed right now. Those who have some seed say their phone is ringing off the hook from potential buyers. It’s still technically illegal to import viable hemp seed.

Few, if any, large-scale farmers who plant corn, wheat and alfalfa are adopting the crop this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to assure farmers their federal subsidies wouldn’t be interrupted if they chose to grow the plant, still considered a controlled substance.

The latest Farm Bill signed into law in February 2014 gave some direction. The law defines industrial hemp as different from marijuana as long as any part of the plant remains below a mandated level of THC.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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