Koochiching County’s lead economic development agency has explored a variety of ideas toward the end result of adding jobs and stability to the community.
And while few have come to fruition, it’s not been for a lack of effort by Koochiching Economic Development Authority officials, member Mike Hanson said.
When a potential opportunity presents itself, KEDA Director Paul Nevanen said the path is pursued until it hits a crossroad: it either makes sense for the community or factors lead officials to believe it’s not a right fit.
The agency has taken the first steps in exploring whether industrial hemp — production and/or processing — could work here.
Nevanen said a potential investor, who worked and lived here previously for a short time, is looking at investment opportunities in the area and asked if research on industrial hemp had been conducted.
Hemp products range from food, fuel, feed, fiber and saw board as hard as oak, Hanson said.
“I ate some seeds, and they taste like sunflower seeds, kind of,” said Hanson, noting a key to the crop is that industry can benefit from use of the bio-waste material as a fuel.
As part of the exploration process, Nevanen attended in December the 2019 Minnesota Hemp Conference at St. Cloud, where he said he met with growers, policy people, and processors representing a wide variety of people.
“It was really fascinating,” he said, adding all there were sharing their expertise.
In mid-January, Hanson met to talk about hemp in Williams at the Northern Excellence Seed Company with it’s CEO; Harold Stanislawski, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute project development director; and a representative of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
AURI has assisted in the development of the Minnesota’s hemp industry.
Hemp is not a new crop for Minnesota, but it’s been illegal to plant since the 1950s. Hanson noted that during World War II, hemp cultivation helped produce rope. And it’s been reported that U.S. farmers grew about a 1 million acres of hemp across the Midwest as part of that program. Nevanen said nine processing centers for rope and fabric existed in Minnesota pre-1940s.
After the war ended, industrial hemp production slowed and later stopped because hemp was no longer recognized as distinct from marijuana after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Flash forward: The 2014 farm bill opened door a bit, allowing states to explore a pilot program, and the growth and market of hemp.
The passage of the 2018 farm bill opened the door a little more, by defining industrial hemp as having less than 0.3 percent of the “high” producing “Delta 9 THC” chemical. That allows growers and processors to become more involved in the hemp industry, finding new uses for it. Hanson said among the new uses are for a protein source for humans and other animals, fiber for packaging and building materials, and CBD oil, used in health and beauty products.
The industry is growing. Nevanen noted in 2016, the state had six licensed growers in 38 total acres. In 2019, those numbers grew to 343 licenses issued and 8,000 acres grown.
Joe Radinovich, the executive director of the Minnesota Hemp Association, called the growth of the hemp industry an explosion, in a MinnPost.com story about Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson’s interest.
Hanson said Peterson is “bullish” on it. “He thinks growers and processors have potential to cash in on lucrative markets,” Hanson said “But the regulations are onerous.”
Peterson’s bill, H.R.5587, would change the way the Food and Drug Administration regulates CBD-products, allowing CBD to be marketed as a dietary supplement, said MinnPost.com. Additionally, it would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study market barriers for hemp, the story said.
The right crop?
Koochiching County isn’t known for its productive farm land, but its cool temperatures and soil conditions could be right for hemp, Hanson said.
“This would fit our climate,” he added.
Hanson said Minnesota farmers consider risk and rewards when selecting crops, and hemp may bring less risk and more rewards than other traditional Minnesota crops.
AURI officials are also bullish on hemp,Hanson said, meaning they believe there is high value in the crop.
Hanson said he hopes by summer, enough would be known about the potential of hemp that a small industry could begin in the county. He points to Canada, where hemp has been grown for years, adding there’s an ag research station south of Emo where it has been grown.
Meanwhile, Hanson cautions that this crop will not get people high. Seeds of plants certified with no THC are required, everyone who grows it is inspected and if the crop exceeds the percentage of THC it is destroyed.
“We know there’s a market, but how do we develop that at Koochiching County?” Hanson said. “If it can be, how many acres are people interested in developing? And furthering the uses are just nonstop.”
He pointed to plant in Kentucky, which uses the fiber to create furniture, he said.
“This is a step in a process that may or may not come to fruition,” he continued. “But the potential of what I see at this point, I would seriously look at it if I were in the agriculture business.”
Nevanen agreed. He meets later this month with the potential investor.
“Now, maybe we look at a feasibility study and a business plan around it to see what makes the most sense,” he said.