Texas farmers hoping hemp brings greener pastures

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BROWNFIELD, Texas (Nexstar) — Cotton and cattle are king in Texas, so where does that leave hemp when new state and federal rules are finalized?

Farmers across the state are pondering whether to incorporate the crop into their rotation once the United States Department of Agriculture completes its guidelines and the Texas Department of Agriculture adds state-specific rules based on new state law, which legalizes industrial hemp production.

“We’re always looking to diversify our crop rotation as much as we can — so anything that can add value to our operations, we’re excited to look into,” said Mason Becker, a Texas cotton and peanut farmer.

Becker, who grows on land in Brownfield, Texas, about 40 miles southwest of Lubbock, has many questions about hemp.

“Obviously with any new crop, there’s going to be concerns, chief among them in hemp is obviously legality,” he said.

“How do we potentially grow this crop and grow it legally and stay away from some of those negative connotations that have followed it in the past?” Becker asked rhetorically, in an interview Tuesday.

He and other Texas agriculture producers are in a holding pattern as they await the state and federal rules to be approved.

“We don’t know when licenses will be available,” Calvin Trostle, a professor and agronomist at the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service said. “Until that time…growers cannot import seed.”

Trostle said the main issues prior to planting are poor seed quality and markets that are not yet fully developed.

“The quality of seed is often poor (and very expensive, potentially several thousand dollars per acre; for comparison a cotton farmer in the Lubbock region might spend up to $75 an acre for irrigated cotton),” he wrote in an email on Tuesday. “The markets will have to develop for a prospective farmer to even consider growing hemp; we project at this time that no farmer should grow hemp without a legally binding contract with a buyer that outlines prices, term, payment, etc.”

Experts indicate Texas offers a wide range of viability for the plant itself.

“You can grow it in East Texas, in South Texas, just about anywhere,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said. “West Texas is ideal for it, you don’t have much chance for cross pollination with marijuana out there, it’s irrigated, predictable weather, not a lot of insect pressure not a lot of disease pressure.”

Miller anticipates the state and federal rules will be ready in time to issue licenses and permits to growers to begin planting in the spring, which would mean a fall harvest for the crop.

“Texas cattle and cotton have been king forever, but we’re not divesting off those commodities, we are expanding specialty crops, we have a huge fast growing market in olive grows, the wine industry is booming, we’ve got other areas in those,” Miller said. “Diversity is always good — put enough irons in the fire, hopefully one of them will get hot.”

Like cotton, hemp would have broad usage for its oil and fiber.

“There’s a lot of talk out there for hemp, a big market for it,’ Miller said. “There’s a lot of people who are going to be buying hemp, CBD oil, we’re talking about fiber, over 2,000 products can be made from it, we’re going to be on the ground for that.”

Industry professionals largely agree investing too deep in hemp would put their other crops at risk. Market uncertainty for other commodities also plays a factor.

“I think [hemp] could be favorable, but do I see it as a panacea that saves Texas farmers dealing with low commodity prices, increasing expenses, and struggling to stay in business? Not so fast,” Trostle explained. “It could for some farmers, but it won’t for all farmers.”

“If Texas owners are engaged in the production and processing, then Texas will benefit, but if many of the processors and marketers are from out of state, then profits may not stay in Texas,” he added.

Becker said of the 6,000 acres he grows on, he would probably dedicate only 60 acres to hemp at first.

“At the end of the day, I still have to answer to my bankers, so I can’t afford to jump out and risk a bunch of money on an unknown crop,” Becker said. “I think it’ll be something people try on a small scale first and then as the market kind of balances out and we see how things are going, we’ll go from there, I imagine.”

“I don’t see hemp coming in and taking over cotton by any means, if it could become a viable option as a rotation crop, I think it’s something worth pursuing,” he said.

David Ewerz contributed to this report.

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