P.J. Sneed is a nurse at a hospital in Wichita, but only until the end of the June. That’s when he’ll quit to become a hemp farmer.
“I’ve not grown a stitch of hemp,” he said. “But I feel like I know how I could do it and have a plan to do it.”
He’ll need more than just enthusiasm to succeed as he trades the stresses of checking patients’ vital signs and administering medicine for the stresses of growing a new crop without experience or the benefits of crop insurance.
Earlier this year, the Kansas Legislature paved the way for Sneed’s decision after it legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp. Industrial hemp is the same species of plant that marijuana comes from (cannabis sativa), but it’s been specifically cultivated to produce a very small amount (by law, under 0.3 percent) of the psychoactive chemical, known as THC, that gets people high.
Boosters of the plant argue it has tens of thousands of uses. The fibers in its stalk can be turned into insulation, while the plant’s flower can be pressed into an oil rich with a chemical known as cannabidiol, or CBD.
CBD oil products are marketed to treat a variety of ailments. They drive most of the demand for hemp plants in the U.S. now. But experts and economists warn that creating a market from scratch, especially one with a stigma like hemp, is full of obstacles.
For starters, hemp requires special equipment to harvest and to process. The qualities that make it great for rope are the same ones that make it harder on machines than wheat and corn. So processors have engineered their own solutions or found private investors willing to spend heavily to import a machine from abroad.
And even though a state can legalize growing hemp, the federal government still views it as a dangerous drug, the same as heroin or cocaine. Among other consequences, that cuts potential growers and processors off from access to traditional banking.
If Kansas farmers want to know what they’re really getting into, they can look to neighboring Colorado. Five years ago, it became the first state to let people grow industrial hemp since the 1940s.
“It’s an amazing plant. It’s magic,” William “Wild Bill” Billings said.
He’s the CEO of the Colorado Hemp Project. Not only does he grow hemp and sell seeds to new farmers, but he said he’s benefitted from the products it can produce too.
Billings has arthritis and doctors told him he’d need a knee and hip replaced. Three years later he said he’s living pain-free by using a regimen of 100 mg of CBD oil a day.
"It's an amazing plant. It's magic."
Billings also said growing hemp is a huge opportunity for struggling farmers. He thinks as soon as they see the benefits, they’ll be replacing their corn with hemp.
If they do, they’ll need someone to sell it to. That’s where Ed Lehrburger, the CEO of Pure Hemp Technologies, comes in.
His company has developed ways to process every part of the plant — from the fibrous stalk to the CBD rich flowers and buds.
But getting to that point was a process of trial and error. In an effort that took more than a year, he and his employees managed to turn an old gleaner into a hemp thresher that can separate the plant into three separate components. The process required taking the machine apart, modifying it, and putting it back together at least six times before getting the results they desired.
Even now, just because they can process the plant, doesn’t mean they’re always looking to buy — an often overlooked component of deciding to grow hemp.
“We’d get calls from farmers, ‘God, we grew hemp. We heard you guys were processing it. Are you going to buy our hemp or not?’,” he said. “Well, no, we’re not. We’d boughten a lot and we’ve got more than we can handle.”
Don’t put that first seed in the ground until you’ve got a buyer, Lehrburger says.
But like in Colorado, the prospect of getting a head start in a budding industry has many Kansas farmers and entrepreneurs excited about hemp.
Christina Hett from Marion County was among dozens who showed up to packed information meetings held by the Kansas Department of Agriculture this spring.
“The farming markets are terrible,” she said. “It’s to the point that we have to find something else.”
She says hemp might provide that solution and was looking for guidance. But state agriculture officials said that they still lack answers on several fronts. Final regulations won’t be approved until later this year.
"It needs fertilizer. It needs good soil. And most importantly, it needs good farmers."
Other states face the same questions. In 2017, four states began growing industrial hemp for the first time under various pilot programs, joining 15 others that had already started. More states will soon be joining that list. Among them is Missouri, where legislators approved a pilot program this year.
In the meantime, Kansas officials are studying places such as Kentucky that already have programs.
“We hope it may become a game changer,” said Brent Burchett, director of the plant division for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “But to date, it’s just another crop we’re researching.”
He estimates farmers will plant more than 3,000 acres of hemp in his state this year. Kentucky officials see hemp as a potential replacement for tobacco. But replacing 80,000 acres of tobacco, or taking over a fraction of the millions of acres used to grow corn and soybeans, with hemp won’t be easy or quick.
“A lot of expectation was it just needed a little bit of sunshine and it would be all well,” Burchett said. “But it needs fertilizer. It needs good soil. And, most importantly, it needs good farmers.”
“There are no insecticides, no fungicides, no herbicides labeled for this and there’s no crop insurance and no safety net for it,” University of Kentucky Assistant Professor Tyler Mark said.
The reality of growing hemp right now is that farmers need to be willing to lose everything they put into this crop.
“Until it comes off of that list,” Mark said. “It becomes difficult to attract additional investment into this market.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is trying to change that and make growing hemp easier. He’s sponsoring a bill that would remove hemp from the controlled substance list and give hemp farmers access to crop insurance, but it’s still far from becoming law.
Even so, the appeal of growing a plant that could have major economic and environmental impacts has many Kansans willing to take the risk. After all, Kansas used to grow a lot of hemp. One year during the Civil War, Kansas grew more bushels of hemp per acre than any other state.
Sneed, the nurse and aspiring hemp farmer, has already bought 80 acres of land to start growing hemp. At first, he’ll only plant about 10 acres, but in the future he hopes for a lot more.
“Everybody’s predicting in eight to 10 years it to be a $1.5 billion dollar industry,” he said. “How do you ignore that?”
This article was originally produced for the Kansas News Service. Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.