WILLMAR, Minn. - A growing market for industrial hemp as food, fiber and nutraceuticals is gaining ground in west central Minnesota and could find a place in Kandiyohi County.
There's at least one field of hemp planted this year in Chippewa County and a food-grade processing facility is being established in Olivia-about 25 miles south of Willmar.
Yes. It is legal.
And, no, industrial hemp is not intoxicating.
"You can't get high from it," said Andrea Vaubel, Minnesota assistant commissioner of agriculture. "The THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) level is so low, we'd like to say you'd have to smoke a whole field and all you'd get is a headache," she said.
Even though industrial hemp and medical/recreational marijuana come from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L., they are very different.
Educating the public about those differences is an important step in securing a strong market for hemp products, Vaubel said.
Hemp on the farm
Currently, Canada has the corner on the hemp production and processing market.
The U.S. is missing out on a viable market, Vaubel said.
"It's a great way for farmers to diversify and get in on the ground floor," she said. "We'd like to see the state invest and grow the industry."
Thanks in part to a pilot project for hemp that was included in the 2014 farm bill-and a climate conducive to growing hemp-the number of acres of industrial hemp grown in Minnesota has grown dramatically in the last two years.
In 2016 there were 47 acres of hemp planted on seven farms in the state. This year there are 2,100 acres of hemp planted on 42 farms.
According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, there is a 101-acre field of hemp being grown in Chippewa County.
Now, hemp processing plants are starting to emerge.
A facility in Olivia, which will produce items such as hemp flour, organic roasted hemp hearts-a popular snack food-and a cold-pressed hemp oil used in cooking, will be one of the first in the state.
There's currently one hemp seed processing plant in North Dakota.
With hopes that the market potential for farmers and processors will continue to grow, the Ag and Renewable Energy Committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission is exploring ways to provide a local market niche for industrial hemp.
Committee member Kim Larson said the group has not been involved with securing a major value-added ag project in the county since Bushmills Ethanol landed in Atwater. He is encouraging the committee to explore opportunities for industrial hemp production and processing.
Because of the rapid growth of hemp field production, Larson said it's important to be ready to respond on the value-added end.
"Ten years from now is not the time to build a plant," Larson said. "We don't want to be on the cutting edge, but we don't want to be on the bleeding edge either."
Hemp in Olivia
Scott Tersteeg, who farms and operates Beaver Creek Transport in Olivia with his brother, Randy, planted 400 acres of organic hemp this year on a field near Crookston.
Tersteeg teamed up with another hemp grower, John Strohfus, from Minnesota Hemp Farms Inc. in Hastings, to get a processing facility running at Tersteeg's warehouse in Olivia.
Tersteeg and Strohfus made a presentation earlier this summer to the EDC's Ag and Renewable Energy Committee about the challenges and rewards of growing hemp and their plans for processing hemp seeds in Olivia.
Strohfus said Olivia is a good location because it will provide an outlet for hemp producers from Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa.
He said they intend that Kay's Naturals in Clara City will package their food products.
Because a food and oil process facility is already planned for Olivia, the EDC committee may explore options for processing hemp fiber.
Hemp fiber can be used for hundreds of different textiles and products. Currently, the closest hemp fiber processing facility is in Nebraska.
"We'd certainly be willing to jump into that if there was a market for it," said Connie Schmoll, business development specialist with the EDC. "We want to assess and research and find out what can be utilized in our community."
Strohfus said there's a risk that the supply of hemp products may be greater than the demand.
He said groups such as the EDC's ag committee can help enhance the market by educating the public about healthful consumption and use of hemp products.
"Hemp is not marijuana. It's a safe food product to eat," Strohfus said. "You won't fail any drug tests."