Missouri, specifically Lafayette County, was once known as the hotbed of hemp production. Prior to the Civil War, Lafayette County was included with a cluster of neighboring counties that were referred to as “Little Dixie.” Staying true to its southern roots, the County’s industrial hemp growth contributed 38,000 tons to Missouri’s estimated production between the 1850s and 1870s.

Hemp’s Ebbs and Flows

Industrial hemp is said to be one of the first plants spun into fiber thousands of years ago. It has the capacity to grow in many climates and, according to a 1930s article from Popular Mechanics, has over 25,000 known uses. For instance, its stalks can be used by a variety of industries from textiles to construction. The seeds from hemp are edible and touted as a rich source of protein, fiber, and healthy fatty acids. The oil from pressed seeds is used for cooking and in cosmetics. CBD, or cannabidiol, is extracted and employed as a natural pharmaceutical for common health issues like anxiety, pain, and even acne – to name just a few.

As for industrial hemp production in Missouri, its heyday came to a screeching halt in 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed. Politicians decided to lump industrial hemp in with its first cousin, marijuana, which is known for its intoxicating effects. Later, the Controlled Substance Act was passed in the 1970s, during the Nixon administration. The legislation officially banned all forms of cannabis, making industrial hemp illegal to grow, process, or sell.

Decades later, industrial hemp reemerged in 2014 when the Obama administration passed legislation allowing states to establish pilot programs to determine the value of industrial hemp as an alternative cash crop. Taking it a step further, the current administration signed the 2018 Farm Bill, officially removing the crop from the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.

Hemp’s Chemical Makeup

Industrial hemp is not embraced by everyone due to its familial tie with marijuana. But there are some clear-cut differences. For starters, it’s important to underscore Congress’s classification. Industrial hemp, by law, can only contain 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is the psychoactive drug in marijuana that causes intoxication. Industrial hemp does not contain enough THC to produce a high. It’s true that both plants are derived from what’s known as Cannabis sativa L. and look similar. However, their chemical composition is different due to the juxtaposition in THC levels. The Purdue University Hemp Project puts it this way: All cannabis plants produce THC; however, marijuana contains at least 10 percent of THC and hemp contains 0.3 percent.

Simply put, the higher level of THC found in marijuana is what inherently causes the altered mental state when smoked or consumed. Experts contend it is virtually impossible to derive a high from industrial hemp.

Hemp Gets Seal of Approval

Congress has given industrial hemp a green thumb’s up as a recognized crop governed by rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), rather than an illicit substance controlled by the Department of Justice. Industrial hemp also qualifies for a slew of safety net programs utilized by other commodity crops, such as insurance, access to federal grants, loans, and tax write-offs. Banks and other commercial lenders can open lines of credit for hemp growers.

As a result, farmers across Missouri are cautiously optimistic about the potential to grow industrial hemp as a cash crop. This hope intensified as trade wars between the U.S. and China waged and inclement weather conditions threatened soybean and corn growers. One farmer equated the recent bailouts by the current administration as receiving a penny for every bushel. With that in mind, the prospect of growing industrial hemp again in Missouri sounds good – on the surface, at least.

Missouri’s Restrictive Hemp Pilot Program

House Bill 2034, directed by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, limits the total number of farmable acres to only 2,000 across the state. The legislation also stipulates that farmers can grow a minimum of 10 acres and a maximum of 40 acres. New bills are in the works to lift some of the restrictions placed on hemp production but must work through the state’s legislative process. Additionally, federal laws governing national industrial hemp production are underway. These rules are delayed until fall 2019 to accommodate the 2020 growing season.

Some say that’s too little, too late. “One of the things we want to learn is which strains grow best in Missouri,” Mitch Meyers, owner of BeLeaf Company in Earth City, told the House Agricultural Policy Committee in Jefferson City in March. “We have five different soil types, temperatures, and humidities.” Meyers also emphasized that farmers need to be allowed to plant in 2019, to begin experimenting with hemp seed and tracking its response to these variances.

A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found U.S. retail sales of industrial hemp racked up almost $700 million in 2016. In the past, hemp has been imported from China and Canada. The positive economic impact on Missouri’s fledgling rural communities could be huge if state lawmakers lift restrictions. For now, it’s a waiting game to see what legislation passes and when that gives hopeful hemp farmers the green light.

Missouri’s Proposed Hemp Timeline

July 1, 2019: Industrial Hemp Pilot Program receives any spending authorized by the approved FY2020 budget.
July 30, 2019: Program rules become effective.
August 2019: Industrial hemp education and outreach meetings begin. The meetings review current laws, regulations, and application processes.
September 3, 2019: Program grower and handler applications become available online.
October 31, 2019: Grower and handler applications are approved and applicants are notified.
November 30, 2019: Handlers’ and growers’ registration fees are due.