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Tuesday, August 07, 2018 1:00 am

Legislators hear plea to grow hemp

Farmers see hope of profitable market; legal issues remain

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Hoosiers around the state urged lawmakers Monday to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp – an untapped market that could be an emerging agribusiness for Indiana.

“Farm income these days is pretty tough. To have an alternative crop to add to the income stream for Indiana farmers is vital at this time,” said Don Zolman, CEO of Zolman Farms in Kosciusko County. “I would encourage you to push the envelope here a little.”

He said he has a transportation company and can move product around, but as a businessman he's at a standstill until the General Assembly moves forward.

Zolman and others spoke in support of allowing the cultivation of hemp in Indiana similar to growing other crops like corn or soybeans. A mix of House and Senate lawmakers listened as members of the Interim Study Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The group spent the morning touring Purdue University's hemp program, which provides information to the public about what is needed to produce hemp and develop a viable industry in Indiana and throughout the Midwest.

Currently only researchers at institutions are allowed to grow the plant, and the only Indiana university doing so is Purdue.

A bill that would have allowed farmers to grow the type of low-THC cannabis stalled last session when Gov. Eric Holcomb expressed concern that the state wasn't ready to properly regulate the industry.

The fibers and stalks of hemp can be used in countless products, and seed oil is also popular.

Dr. Ron Turco, the department head of agronomy at Purdue, said hemp is not marijuana and he is glad to hear the discussion moving past that debate.

He said Purdue has been studying the best possible uses for hemp and narrowing the varieties that are best.

“We are missing an opportunity,” Turco said. “This is possibly a very lucrative situation to get involved with.”

He said Indiana needs to make hemp more accessible instead of channeling everything through the one permit that he controls.

“It's time to open this up to the private sector,” Turco said.

Lawmakers have been using Kentucky's hemp program as a possible pilot. But Jeff Cummins, of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, cautioned that Indiana's ag agency isn't set up with regulation in mind. Instead, most of that framework is handled by the state chemist or Board of Animal Health.

“We recognize industrial hemp will be part of agricultural growth. We have no opposition to a market-oriented program,” he said.

But Cummins said his office doesn't have the budget or staffing needed to make it work.

“If it's assigned to us, we need time to build it up if it's too burdensome for our agency,” Cummins said.

One wrinkle is how the federal government views hemp. There are differing interpretations of a 2014 federal law and whether growing hemp is allowed for commercial purposes. The Drug Enforcement Administration considers hemp to be a Schedule 1 drug.

Efforts are underway to try to remove hemp from the government's list of most addictive drugs in a pending farm bill.

In the meantime, Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, noted that the DEA hasn't raided the state of Kentucky's program and there have been no consequences.

nkelly@jg.net