ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Farmers anxious to grow hemp as part of a newly authorized Minnesota pilot project are expressing frustration after being told by state regulators that chance won’t come soon.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture informed interested farmers in a recent email that there “are no opportunities to be involved with the pilot program at this time” because of lack of money from the Legislature and scarcity of independently funded researchers stepping forward. The posture has surprised lawmakers who championed the “Industrial Hemp Development Act” and discouraged producers who hoped to start planting seeds next spring.READ MORE: First Major Snowfall Brings Avalanche Of Wintery Pics
“It kind of stinks,” said Josh Helberg, a Stevens County farmer who hoped to use part of his 250 acres for a test hemp crop. “What does Minnesota want to do: Do we want to be left behind everybody or do some research of this incredible crop and get more money into farmers’ pockets?”
Zumbrota’s Andrew Johnmeyer, another small farmer who approached the state about possible involvement, said he understands the difficulty of getting started but he worries it will languish if it depends on lawmakers coming through with money next year.
The email from the agriculture department’s point person, Tony Cortilet, said officials are considering approaching the Legislature to fund a competitive grant program.
Cortilet said Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson “is aware of the strong interest from producers like you to be involved with the pilot program, however without funding the program must rely on researchers coming forward with their own resources.”
Republican state Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria, who sponsored the hemp law, said the department never asked for money toward the program as the bill advanced. She said lawmakers gave regulators the ability to impose fees to cover costs.
Senate chief sponsor, Democrat Kent Eken of Twin Valley, said the concern about funding “comes as a surprise to me.”READ MORE: State Patrol: 260+ Crashes As Snow Coats Minnesota Roads
“I wasn’t hearing anything about the need for more funding to get this pilot project off the ground,” he said.
Lawmakers don’t reconvene until March and decisions won’t be made until May, meaning another growing season could be lost.
For now, the state has only met about the pilot project with a University of Minnesota researcher who intends to study seeds he will collect from hemp growing in the wild. The agency is in talks with another company that has plans to produce seed for distribution in Minnesota if granted a permit.
The university researcher, plant biology professor George Weiblen, said Friday that he’s been inundated with calls from farmers, hemp advocates and entrepreneurs looking to partner with him. But he faces his own constraints.
“My capacity is very limited,” Weiblen said. “I don’t have adequate funding to propose a field trial at this stage.”
He stresses that Minnesota’s new program opened the door only to limited research and not commercial-scale hemp cultivation, where the plant could be sold for oils, lotions, seeds, rope fibers and other industrial uses.
The law passed in June directs the state Department of Agriculture to write rules for hemp production and licensing. But officials say they won’t permit cultivation of industrial hemp until the federal government allows for its growth beyond academic research.MORE NEWS: Minnesota Weather: 'Heavy, Heavy, Heavy Snow' To Hit Northeastern Minnesota
(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)