Sam Armstrong of Choteau is one of the 56 Montana farmers who planted 22,000 acres of industrial hemp this year — boosting Montana to the top of the list of hemp-producing states.
Colorado held that title in 2017, but in 2018 the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Pilot Program licensed 56 farmers to plant up to 26,000 acres, 22,000 of which were put into production, according to Ian Foley, the manager of the pilot program.
Foley said 2017 was the first year Montana producers were able to plant hemp seed under the auspices of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, which authorized state agriculture departments and research universities to plant hemp under strict controls. Last year, 14 farmers obtained licenses from the Ag Department and planted 550 acres.
This year, 56 Montana farmers obtained licenses to plant 22,000 acres of hemp on 90 fields, mostly in north-central and north-eastern Montana. Colorado, by contrast, has 30,000 licensed acres, but typically only plants 60 percent or 18,000 acres of hemp.
Foley said Montana’s pilot program fully complies with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and federal law. Montana farmers enrolled in the pilot are approved to use federally-controlled water to irrigate their crops, can use banks and are allowed to enroll in the U.S. Farm program and take out crop insurance on their other crops.
During an interview earlier this fall, Armstrong said he wants the Choteau community to know what he is doing on his farm northeast of Choteau on the Farmington Bench.
Armstrong said he has had a lot of people asking him about the hemp fields and some trespassing by people who think it’s a psychoactive variety — which it is not.
Hemp, like its illegal cousin, marijuana, is a variety of cannabis sativa L. Foley describes the difference between marijuana and hemp as the same difference between broccoli and cauliflower — the same type of plant, bred for different traits and purposes.
The Department of Agriculture defines hemp as cannabis sativa L. that contains no more than .3 percent of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
As part of his hemp license, Armstrong’s crop is tested every three days to make sure the plants contain less than .3 percent THC. That compares to THC levels of 15 percent to 25 percent in medical marijuana plants.
Armstrong said a person could try to smoke his plants, but they’d likely suffer from smoke inhalation without ever getting high.
The hemp industry, though limited by federal drug regulations, is shaping up as a possible new cash crop for farmers.
The Hemp Business Journal estimated the total retail value of hemp products sold in the United States in 2017 to be at least $820 million. Those products include hemp foods, personal care products, textiles, food supplements, hemp-derived cannabidiol products (like the prescription medication Epidiolex), industrial products (such as car parts) and other consumer products such as paper and construction materials.
This emerging market along with the hemp’s functionality as a rotation crop drew Armstrong into becoming a hemp producer. To obtain his state license, he had to pass a background check and agree to all the required testing — which he does at his own expense.
Armstrong grew up on the family farm with his parents, Mark and Lyla Armstrong. He graduated from Choteau High School in 2005, attended a ministry school for a couple of years, and then started an internal technology business in Helena.
After doing that for a couple of years, Armstrong and his wife, Mariah, returned to Choteau to raise their growing family and run the family farm.
“When I moved home, I got involved in specialty crops because I was looking for more rotational purposes on my ground,” Armstrong said. Prices for wheat and barley were low, and he started raising chickpeas and green and yellow peas while seeking a sustainable oil crop rotation in his planting system.
He tried safflower, sunflower and canola but wasn’t satisfied with the outcome and the profit margins. In researching oil seeds about five years ago, he read an article about the Montana hemp pilot program and signed up as soon as he could.
Finally, in 2017, the state Department of Agriculture met all the federal conditions to launch the pilot program and Armstrong ordered enough seed from Canadian companies to plant 150 acres of hemp, which has a 105-day growing season. He harvested the hemp seeds and sold them to a company to be pressed for oil, used for food items and supplements.
He baled the stalks of the plants but says there’s not enough infrastructure in Montana right now to sell the stalks in the hemp fiber market. Instead, he used it for animal bedding and experimented with it as a fertilizer for greenhouse soil starts. Cows, he noted, won’t eat the stalks — they are too fibrous.
Hemp stalks are also antimicrobial, don’t degrade and continue to absorb carbon dioxide even after they are dead. There are many applications for hemp, but the industrial processing market is still very limited in the U.S., he said.
After his small experiment with hemp in 2017, Armstrong went big in 2018, planting 1,600 acres that he would harvest for CBD oil production and sell to processing plants. He used a grain swather to cut the crop in windrows and then baled the whole plant into large round bales, which he shipped to processors.
“Over the winter, we are going to invest in some different kinds of machinery to create a more ideal harvester for the product we are trying to get,” he said, adding that next year’s harvest may look entirely different.
An annual, hemp has to be reseeded every year. Armstrong said he grew his hemp on both irrigated and dryland fields and didn’t see much difference in yields.
Armstrong said hemp production on a conventional scale is similar to winter wheat production for fertilizer and chemical costs and the seed costs were similar to chickpea/pulse production. Initially, he said, it’s an expensive crop for production.
But as long as the market for hemp grows, the crop will be financially viable, he said. “There’s a huge amount of potential for the crop if industry is created,” he said, adding that he compares hemp today to chickpeas 20 years ago.
The growth of the hemp market in the United States largely rests with Congress now. The U.S. House and Senate have each passed versions of a new farm bill, which is now in conference committee.
The Senate version of that bill includes the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, with bi-partisan support. This bill, if it becomes law, would move federal regulatory authority for hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State agriculture departments would file their hemp program plans with the USDA but would regulate hemp production in their states under their own rules.
The bill would allow access to federal research funding for hemp, would delete restrictions on banking and water rights and would allow farmers to take out crop insurance for hemp.
Eric Steensra, president of the Vote Hemp organization, is lobbying Congress to make sure the final farm bill includes this language, and says both of Montana’s senators, Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, have been supportive of McConnell’s bill with Daines even signing as a co-sponsor.
Steensra said the agricultural benefits of hemp include a deep tap root that helps break up hard-pan soil, limited weeds that compete with it and use to break plant disease cycles. “I think there a lot of potential benefits here to rotate into the mix for farmers,” he said.
He also thinks that hemp has the potential to revitalize farming. The average age of an American farmer is 60 , he said, but his organization is seeing young people coming back to the farm because they are excited about hemp production.
To those coming back, however, Steensra advises caution. “I think it’s important for farmers to approach this carefully,” he said. “I just recommend that farmers wade in cautiously, that they have a market for their products. Don’t dive in head first the first year.”
Armstrong says he plans to use hemp in a two- or three-year rotation with his grain crops and is still growing winter wheat, barley and peas. “It’s part of the whole well-rounded operation,” he said.
So far he has received positive reactions from his buyers. “The quality of the seed and the quality of the plant is very impressive,” he said. “I’m very enthusiastic about it. I’m excited to see where the market goes in the future. With the full legalization in the farm bill, hemp’s future is huge.”
He said that when full legalization occurs, he expects the market to respond with investment in hemp processing plants and he hopes to see infrastructure for processing built locally. “I’m just excited to have another crop or commodity to grow,” he said.