Hemp farmers

The Department of Agriculture opened up licensing applications Friday for the 2019 hemp growing season.

Industrial hemp production, banned in the U.S. since the end of World War II, is now legal under the 2018 federal farm bill. Nebraska is proceeding responsibly in laying the groundwork for cultivation. But a long process lies ahead. Much needs to be sorted out before it becomes clear how significant the crop will be for the state.

Nebraska once was a standout in hemp production. The federal government allowed cultivation during World War II, when hemp was used to make uniforms, canvas and rope for U.S. forces. Nebraska soil proved impressively fertile, with more hemp produced per acre here than anywhere else in the nation.

Federal authorities resumed a ban on the crop after the war, on grounds that hemp, like its botanical cousin marijuana, contains the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

The 2018 farm bill directs states to develop their own plans for hemp production while working within overall parameters set by the farm bill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The THC concentration must be no more than 0.3%, for example. State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha did fine work in developing the complex legislation, approved this session by the Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts, that allows Nebraska to move forward.

Job creation — through cultivation and manufacturing of hemp-associated materials — is the central goal, Wayne said during floor debate on the legislation. Hemp is used to make a wide range of materials, including building materials, health supplements and fibers for textiles.

The going in Nebraska will be slow at first. That’s appropriate, to give time for the state to develop sound regulatory processes and for potential producers to study and decide on the best options for successful long-term cultivation and marketing.

Hemp production in Nebraska and elsewhere currently involves considerable uncertainties and unknowns. Prospective producers need to study a range of cultivation factors including seeds, soils and crop yield — which is why collaborative hemp-related research by the University of Nebraska will be particularly important.

Potential producers have much else to navigate:

» They will need to develop familiarity with hemp-sector prices in order to make sound production and sales decisions.

» They will be operating in an ag niche that, at present, lacks quality standards, unlike traditional crops such as corn. Such standards enable efficient and confident contracting.

» They will need to make decisions on pesticides even though the set of such chemicals for hemp cultivation is at present small.

» They will need to do due diligence in vetting their business relationships, given the newness of this ag sector and the proliferation of players as states attempt to enter the hemp cultivation competition.

It’s good, then, that Nebraska officials intend to move slowly and responsibly. The application deadline for hemp production licenses ended last week. A new state Hemp Commission will be formed. The state Department of Agriculture will move ahead with its regulatory formulation.

Maybe Nebraska will resume its place as the nation’s foremost hemp producer. But the state needs to take its time in order to get it right.

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