Lawmakers inclined to embrace budding hemp industry to save Kansas family farms

Kansas farmers hope to capitalize on hemp

(FILE VIDEO -- DECEMBER 14, 2018) Rick Gash of Butler County hopes to capitalize on a change in federal law that allows for the industrial production of hemp. The 2018 farm bill declassifies hemp as a controlled substance.
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(FILE VIDEO -- DECEMBER 14, 2018) Rick Gash of Butler County hopes to capitalize on a change in federal law that allows for the industrial production of hemp. The 2018 farm bill declassifies hemp as a controlled substance.

Vernon Hammond says hemp may be the next great chapter in Kansas agriculture.

And he came to a forum at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Wednesday night to try to convince south-central Kansas lawmakers to ease up on regulations for cultivating the industrial textile form of cannabis that is a close cousin of smokable marijuana.

“It’s like growing Bermuda grass and profiting from it,” said Hammond, who sells hemp-derived CBD products at two Wichita-area stores called The Health Connection. “Kansas is an agricultural state and I can’t imagine why we’re not participating in such an extremely lucrative agricultural commodity.”

Industrial hemp fiber can be used to make ropes and cordage, clothing, paper, building materials and many other products, while the oil from the plant can be used for everything from biofuels to medicines to plastics. Best of all, it’s a crop ideally suited to the arid grassland climate of western Kansas, Hammond said.

Kansas lawmakers remain deeply split on whether to allow medical marijuana like Oklahoma. And Colorado-style legalization of recreational pot appears to still be far beyond the legislative horizon.

But lawmakers from both parties appear to be warming up to hemp.

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“I think it’s a good opportunity for rural Kansas and also the (whole) state to come up with an export or new business program,” said Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, who represents an agricultural district west of Wichita.

Ideally, hemp could energize younger Kansans who don’t want to take over family farms that struggle to keep up with large-scale producers of conventional crops like wheat and corn.

And that in turn could create opportunities for Wichita’s industrial base to turn the raw hemp into marketable products, Seiwert said.

“That’s why I think it could be important for young farmers, or real small farmers, because agriculture’s getting to be a big business, a lot of acres, and this might be something for family farmers or somebody wanting to start out,” he said.

Tapping the potential of hemp as a crop would take some significant changes in Kansas law. Last year, the Legislature authorized a test program within the confines of federal regulations that still considered all forms of hemp to be an illegal drug.

But the federal government has since declassified industrial hemp containing up to 3 percent THC, the chemical that in larger concentrations can be smoked for a marijuana high.

The focus of Hammond’s speech to the lawmakers was that the current rules for growing hemp make it practically impossible to pursue as a business.

It costs $10,000 to join the state program to grow hemp. And because it’s a test program, the crop actually has to be destroyed after it’s grown, Hammond said.

“The federal government has descheduled and legalized hemp, which now can be a commodity,” Hammond told about 20 lawmakers who attended the forum. “I want to know why Kansas can’t adopt the federal rule and let us profit from something we could do rather than spend the money to burn our product. It makes no sense.”

Rep.-elect Stephen Owens, a Republican from Hesston who gets sworn in next week, said he thinks Hammond raised a valid point

“I think there’s opportunity to go back to the Legislature and say ‘Hey, look, now that the federal government’s declassified it, do we really need this pilot program?” Owens said. “Do we have to really have all this onerous burden going on if there’s no longer any federal conflict?”

He said the state should be doing “anything that we can do to support our farmers.”

“Any opportunity we can provide them is going to be huge in today’s economy,” he said. “Kids are getting a good education here and then leaving because there’s no money in farming. They don’t want to take over the family farm. That’s a tragedy and we’ve got to change that.”

And it appears to be one of those rare issues where rural Republicans and urban Democrats share a common enthusiasm for change.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he thinks the pilot program was set up to be too restrictive. But he said he thinks there’s a good chance the Legislature will relax the state rules to match the looser federal regulations, which he supports.

Mary Ware, a Democratic senator-elect from west Wichita, owns two CBD stores called Shaman Botanicals.

Count her in as a hemp supporter.

“You can about grow cannabis with no rain at all,” she said. “That sounds like western Kansas to me.”

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.