LAFAYETTE — Hemp likes living in Indiana, a Purdue agronomist told a committee of legislators examining ways to turn the plant into a Hoosier industry.
But Statehouse leaders haven’t been so sure they want to live with hemp.
Recent efforts to expand hemp production into private business have been met with skepticism, although many Indiana farmers are hoping to turn the green leafy plant into commodities ranging from salad toppings to auto parts.
Currently, hemp can only be grown for research at a farm operated by Purdue University.
“The Purdue hemp research group feels Indiana can be a leader,” Ronald Turco, Department Head of Agronomy at Purdue, said. “Indiana is well positioned for growing hemp in climate soils that support the crop. Most importantly we have an existing industry that needs vibrancy.”
He addressed the first meeting of the Interim Study Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. Seven of 14 members attended the Monday session in Lafayette.
The committee’s task is to determine how the state should regulate hemp production. The committee report is due by early November.
“It’s going to be kind of a chicken-and-egg process,” State Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, chair of the committee, said. “We want to have the product but there also has to be a market for that product. We don’t want a lot of business folks, farmers especially, producing a product they can’t sell.”
The committee is not looking at medical marijuana, which is being studied by a separate committee on public health.
Before the committee session, legislators were among 45 people touring the Samuel G. Meigs Horticulture Facility where Purdue has been authorized to plant and research hemp. About three-fifths of an acre contains strips of hemp, varying in sizes and planted at different times earlier this season.
Though the plants look similar, marijuana usually has an 18 percent to 38 percent THC content, Turco said. Hemp, typically used for fiber products, is grown from seeds with less than .3 percent THC. Its seeds are used for such products as animal feed; CBD oil, now legally sold in Indiana, is also extracted from the hemp plant.
Hemp is grown organically on one plot where plants are about 10 feet high. On another plot, which was treated with nitrogen, plants are taller.
Purdue has found an 80-day growth season, ending in July, to be productive, particularly if seeds are planted early. But Purdue is also exploring what crops could be rotated on Indiana farms between hemp seasons, such as wheat.
Purdue buys seeds certified as having less than .3 percent THC content from Canada. Foreign imports of hemp, mostly from China and Canada, to the U.S. cost about $38 million, Turco said.
Entrepreneurs like Austin Rhodus of DREEM Nutrition in Kokomo must buy hemp products, such as CBD oil and digestible protein powder, from Hawaii. His business saw a 280 percent growth month-over-month in the first quarter of 2018.
“We can sell CBD here. I cannot produce CBD. I cannot grow CBD. I cannot grow hemp. I cannot get seed. I cannot vertically integrate my company,” Rhodus told legislators. “We sell thousands and thousands of hemp products in Indiana every single month and we are required to employ people out of state to sustain that business, which is very frustrating.”
Since hemp is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the federal government, Indiana only allows Purdue University to grow and conduct research on hemp.
That’s unlike Kentucky, which allows state-licensed farmers to participate in a research pilot program where they can grow, produce and market hemp. Hemp acreage has increased from 1,742 acres in 2015 to 16,100 this year.
“Because of hemp’s legal status there’s difficulty in obtaining materials that can routinely be used in production and practices,” said Turco.
Last session, State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, sponsored a bill that would have redefined industrial hemp in Indiana. However, amendments were added to the bill and it was whittled down to include only the summer study committee.
“I was sponsor of the bill last year because I believe in the program and that it could be done the right way,” Head said. “Several people have concerns and one of my concerns is we don’t people who would abuse the program to grow marijuana to try and get a license to represent they are growing industrial hemp when they are growing something else.
“So a rigorous testing program, a rigorous enforcement program are all things that we need to do,” Head said.
He added, “If and when the federal government says industrial hemp is OK ... and if we don’t have a framework in place, our farmers are going to get left behind.”
Indiana legislators also have been hesitant to pass a bill when hemp, considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, could be redefined by the federal farm bill. Also, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also introduced legislation that would remove non-psychoactive cannabis varieties known as hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.
“Other states have taken a little more lenient view of that and have created programs through their state governments to allow expansion, what they call their pilot programs,” Turco told the legislators.
“I think we need to move it out there and see if it will take as a product,” Turco said.