Government

Hemp legislation advances in Iowa Senate, but OK to grow industrial hemp doubtful in House

A look towards the rotunda from a stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A look towards the rotunda from a stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Legislation allowing Iowa farmers to raise industrial hemp cleared a House Ways and Means subcommittee on Wednesday despite warnings growers would face federal regulatory hurdles.

The legislation, similar to laws in 35 states, would allow the reintroduction of industrial hemp that was grown during World War II to support the war effort.

“This is part of our heritage and history,” Megan Malloy, a lobbyist for Heartland Hemp Co., said at a subcommittee hearing that attracted about 30 people including a half dozen farmer-legislators who were not members of the panel. Later, they expressed both interest and skepticism.

“I’m old enough to remember Jerusalem artichokes,” subcommittee Chairman Lee Hein, R-Monticello, said, referring to efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to create a market for the plant, which most farmers considered a weed. “I think the only one to make money was the guy selling the seed.”

Rep. Louie Zumbach, R-Coggon, isn’t setting aside acres for hemp, but said it would be nice if farmers had a third crop besides corn and soybeans.

If Senate File 2398 is approved, a farmer could not grow hemp’s “first cousin, the more psychoactive cannabis,” Malloy assured the subcommittee. Industrial hemp would have a THC level of less than .3 percent.

In addition to raising hemp for clothing, food, plastics, cosmetic and biofuels, it could be an option as a cover crop to help prevent soil erosion and compaction, Malloy said, and could be used in buffer strips along waterways.

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Malloy estimated that farmers’ input costs would be between $200 and $500 an acre with a return of $1,000 to $1,200 per acre based on current markets. The United States is the largest consumer of hemp products with a market of about $690 million. Much of the hemp consumer here is imported, she said.

Asked about markets, she said an Omaha plant processes crops from Colorado and Minnesota for textiles and Wisconsin plants use it in biofuels.

However, Jacob Swanson of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship warned that hemp is a Schedule I controlled substance that is illegal to transport hemp across state lines.

He also said that the department does not have the lab capacity to take on the required testing of industrial hemp. Swanson estimated it would cost the department more than $160,000 for the appropriate equipment, in addition to new staff costs.

Hein, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, signed off on the bill, but said he has several questions. Although it was approved by the Senate 49-0, Hein doubts it will win House approval this year.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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