Behind a thick screen of green stalks lay a research plot that’s been three years in the making in Nebraska: The state’s first test plot of industrial hemp, a cousin of marijuana that has none of the properties to get someone high, but plenty of uses that might translate into an alternative cash crop for the state’s farmers.
MEAD, Neb. — Like one of the ghostlike baseball players of “Field of Dreams,” researcher Ismail Dweikat strode through the rows of 9-foot-high sorghum in search of an unusual field in farm country.
Behind a thick screen of green stalks lay a research plot that’s been three years in the making in Nebraska.
“Can you smell it?” asked Dweikat as he stepped into a 30-by-60-foot field of cannabis.
Not just any cannabis, but the state’s first test plot of industrial hemp, a cousin of marijuana that has none of the properties to get someone high, but plenty of uses that might translate into an alternative cash crop for the state’s farmers.
“Corn is king in Nebraska — no one is going to give up corn for hemp — but at least hemp would give you a third option,” Dweikat said.
In 2014 the Nebraska Legislature passed a law allowing university research into the viability of growing industrial hemp, which can be used in 2,500 products, from clothing and rope, cosmetics and cereals to building blocks and biodiesel.
But progress in research plots has been frustrated by a sea of red tape and regulations. Hemp, like its potent relative, is defined as a Schedule I drug, lumping it with heroin and LSD and requiring a series of permits, inspections and rules.
The state’s research plots, planted in June, have already demonstrated one thing, according to Dweikat, a professor of horticulture and agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: The Canadian seed that he was required to use isn’t well suited to Nebraska’s shorter growing days.
The plants produced from the northern seed flowered much earlier than Nebraska’s prolific and bountiful ditch weed, which can tower 8 to 10 feet tall or taller.
The result, he said, is that the test plot hemp is much shorter, with fewer seeds, fewer leaves and skinnier stalks, and thus less desirable for the products made from hemp.
Dweikat said that on his drive from the UNL campus in Lincoln to the Mead research farm, he passed hemp plants in the ditch that dwarfed his plot.
“Even on campus along Dead Man’s Run (a small creek) there’s 8-foot-tall plants,” he said.
So if Nebraska is to become an industrial hemp state, it needs to collect and identify the best wild hemp seed from the state, seed that is already well adapted to local sunlight, precipitation and pests.
“If you’re growing hemp for fiber, you need 10-foot-tall plants with a stalk this big,” Dweikat said, forming a circle the size of a baseball bat with his hands.
The researcher, whose background has been in sorghum, said that he had been told by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration last year that he could collect wild seed from Nebraska, but his bosses from UNL said no.
Hector Santiago, the assistant dean for UNL’s ag research division, said that when he inquired with DEA officials about planting wild seed, he didn’t get a definitive answer. Then, when he asked a DEA official directly at a workshop last year, he was told it was against federal laws.
Santiago said he pursued a Plan B, asking UNL attorneys if there might be some way to work around that. But he said he was told there doesn’t appear to be a way.
Some states, like Kentucky, he said, have ignored the federal uncertainty and have moved forward with research on wild seeds. But he said that Nebraska isn’t willing to risk that.
Santiago said his conclusion is that federal law was written “for this thing not to prosper.”
“We would love to let Ismail have what he wants, but it’s not allowed,” Santiago said. “This crop provides an opportunity for Nebraska.”
Advocates for growing hemp for industrial purposes have complained for years that Nebraska is dragging its feet in getting research underway and allowing regular farmers to plant the crop.
Santiago said he’s got a list of 50 farmers waiting to plant hemp.
Former State Sen. Norm Wallman of Cortland, who sponsored the 2014 law that allowed research plots of hemp, said last week it is disappointing.
“I’m a farmer. We’re used to planting and harvesting a crop in the same year. Why couldn’t that happen here?” Wallman asked. “There’s so much paranoia.”
The Nebraska State Patrol and the State Department of Agriculture both testified earlier this year against a proposal to allow farmers — and not just university researchers — to grow industrial hemp. They said that there was still “ongoing conflict” between federal laws allowing hemp research and banning the use of controlled substances, and that passing such a law could cause confusion.
The stigma against industrial hemp is also working against some businesses that produce machines to harvest and process the plant.
Andrew Tejral, sales manager for Bish Enterprises of Giltner, Nebraska, said the company makes a custom combine head that has proven ideal for harvesting hemp. But when he shows the product at farm shows, Tejral said, the response is typically “What are you trying to do, grow marijuana?” or “I cut that stuff out of my ditch.”
“The biggest thing is working past the stigma, separating industrial hemp from recreational marijuana,” he said.
By federal law, the concentration of THC — the compound that causes the high in recreational marijuana — cannot be more than 0.3 percent in industrial hemp. Recreational marijuana has 30 times that much THC, or more.
But industrial hemp is classified just like the high-THC marijuana now sold for recreation in eight states.
That required Dweikat to obtain permits from the DEA and Nebraska Department of Agriculture to obtain seeds from Canada and Italy and plant a crop.
Only Dweikat is allowed to open the box that holds Nebraska’s supply of the pale, BB-size hemp seeds. And use of the seeds must be meticulously tracked and documented.
The seed is kept in a nondescript plastic box that is locked and stored inside a locked cage. DEA officials had to inspect the warehouse at UNL’s research fields near Mead where the seed is kept to ensure that security was adequate. You’d need an airplane to see UNL’s research plots, which are surrounded by towering stands of sorghum.
Federal permission came too late last year to plant a field outside, so some research was done in the greenhouse. UNL had to destroy its supply of Italian hemp seed after a legal spat erupted with the supplier.
So seed from Canada, which has an active industrial hemp industry, was planted this June, a month or so later than ideal.
Dweikat said that it’s easy to grow. Hemp crowds out weeds, so herbicides aren’t needed, and grows well even in drought conditions, he said, making it an ideal alternative for dryland farmers struggling with low prices for corn and soybeans.
At least 33 states have passed laws related to industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kentucky and Colorado have taken the lead in growing hemp.
Kentucky approved 250 farms to grow hemp this year, and production in Colorado has expanded to nearly 9,000 registered acres.
By contrast, Nebraska’s three test plots would fit inside a regulation basketball court.
Dweikat said he is hoping the plots demonstrate what’s best in terms of fertilizer and density of plantings.
This fall, he hopes to get permission to collect wild hemp seeds across the state, and plant them next year. He’s already learning that the answer isn’t coming from Canada.
“We have to use our own wild hemp if we are going to have a hemp industry in Nebraska,” Dweikat said.