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Karson Becker tends to hemp plants at Annette and Bruce Wiles’ farm outside Plattsmouth, one of 10 selected by Nebraska to try growing hemp.

Industrial hemp production is taking its first steps in Nebraska, and the journey needs to be guided by an ample dose of realism. Realism by producers about the time and effort necessary to work out the complexities of this new crop. And realism by state and federal regulators, who are tardy in providing clear, usable instruction to potential producers about regulatory specifics.

The appeal of this new crop is understandable. Nebraska agricultural producers are facing difficult times, and industrial hemp — whose cultivation was legalized by the 2018 farm bill — potentially provides a new source of income generation. Hemp can produce four times the profit of corn, one hemp expert told The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel.

Industrial hemp also raises hopes for new economic opportunities, not just in growing it but also in converting it into a wide range of materials. State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who developed the complex state legislation on the hemp issue, has emphasized hemp’s potential as a Nebraska job creator.

During World War II, the federal government allowed cultivation of this crop, and hemp was used to make uniforms, canvas and rope for U.S. forces. Nebraska’s soil was a standout, producing more hemp per acre than anywhere else in the nation. Federal authorities banned hemp after that war, citing concerns about the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, most closely associated with hemp’s botanical relative marijuana. The farm bill limits hemp’s THC concentration to no more than 0.3%.

With the recent go-ahead from the federal government, enthusiasm to leap into hemp production is spreading quickly. Forty-six states have legalized hemp cultivation, and at least 34 states license growers to produce hemp for clothing, paper, oil and medicinal purposes, Hammel reports.

Unlike established crops, however, hemp at present has a range of uncertainties that need resolution:

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

» They have to make cultivation decisions in a production niche that, at present, lacks quality standards. Such standards enable efficient and confident contracting.

» They need to undertake pest control by hand because no federally approved pesticides are currently available.

» They must vet their business relationships to make sure buyers and other parties are professional-minded and competent. Some unscrupulous buyers have backed out of contracts, Nebraska hemp producer Bruce Wiles told Hammel.

Hemp is “actually quite challenging to grow,” said Wiles. He and his wife, Annette, operate the state’s largest hops farm just outside Plattsmouth and are one of 10 Nebraska operations the state Department of Agriculture selected by lottery for initial cultivation of hemp. The Wiles found it necessary, for example, to repot their hemp plants after finding they didn’t grow well in the thick compost used for hops.

The University of Nebraska will be an important resource in the months ahead in helping producers understand cultivation specifics including seeds, soils and crop yields.

Meanwhile, state and federal regulators need to get moving on providing needed regulatory details to producers. Nebraska producers already expressed surprise and disappointment this year after the state Department of Agriculture allowed only 10 growers out of 176 who applied. The department’s general caution is understandable, but many producers felt blindsided by the action, as did Wayne, the bill’s legislative sponsor.

Meanwhile, producers are shaking their heads over the bureaucratic Catch-22 of regulation: Nebraska Department of Agriculture officials are required to submit their hemp plans to Washington before the end of this year. But Nebraska officials say they first need to receive the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own regulations, which the USDA hasn’t completed. This needless foul-up erodes producers’ confidence and undercuts development of Nebraska’s hemp sector.

Hemp offers great potential for Nebraska agriculture, but producers need to be realistic about the challenges ahead. Regulators, meanwhile, need to give much-needed direction so cultivation can proceed with confidence.

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