Climbing the elevation of Colorado, farmer Travis Hergert says the risks of farming here can be high.
“There are a lot of really unique challenges in this area as far as elevation growing days climate water and just urban sprawl,” said Hergert.
Unique challenges that are forcing some farmers to veer away from tradition farming.
“We're constantly looking for different crops that we think can meet some of those different some of those different parameters,” he said.
It’s one crop that's growing in popularity - and at times - defying popular opinion.
“We tripled our acreage this year," said David Asbury, a farmer in Longmont, Colorado.
Asbury is growing his business in what's now an urban area, as the towns of Boulder and Longmont keep creeping in. He’s doing so by growing hemp.
“This one is kind of catching a spot in my heart, because it just wants to grow,” said Asbury. “Given the right opportunity and a chance to prove itself, it does very well.”
Hemp is a resilient crop agronomically, and one that can come with high returns. Local growers say one seed costs around a $1.50 to plant, and some farmers strive to plant 4,700 seeds per acre.
“But on the back end, that crop can be worth anywhere from $90 to a $1,000 a plant,” said Hergert.
“If I had a million pounds, I’d be ridiculously happy,” said Asbury.
As more farmers venture into the field of hemp, demand today is still outpacing supply.
“The demand is absolutely there and there are contracts that are being written that I know won't be filled, so the demand is definitely there,” said Hergert.
Hergert thinks it’s a crop that could help revive agriculture in other states, as it's a crop already giving some farms new life.
“I mean there are guys that are really hoping to save their four or five generation farms because of this crop,” he said.
It’s that revival Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is striving toward in the 2018 farm bill. A Kentucky native, he's made it clear that he thinks hemp could help Kentucky farmers survive.
“It's no secret I’m excited about parts of the Senate passed bill that concern industrial hemp,” he said during the Senate markup of the bill. “I’d like to recognize my colleague of western Kentucky who as commissioner of agriculture, before he came to Congress, was the first Kentuckian to take a major lead role in what has now developed into a national consensus- I believe- that industrial hemp deserves a comeback.”
McConnell defended hemp in the farm bill conference meeting earlier this year. The senate leader also noted he appointment himself to the conference committee, a testament to how strongly he wants to see hemp legislation succeed.
“Consumers we all now has been consuming hemp products for decades,” he said. “It's everywhere, It's just coming from some other country. It's past time that we build on the work we began with the pilot program in the 2014 farm bill and unleash what farmers in Kentucky and any other state you represent. With proper oversight, they can capitalize on this multi-billion dollar market.”
While the final version of the farm bill is finished, details haven’t been realized, but hemp proponents say hemp will be included.
The Senate-passed version of the farm bill includes four key measures for hemp. First, it legalizes hemp as an ag commodity by removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. It gives states the opportunity to become the primary regulators of hemp production. The language also allows hemp researches to apply for federal grants from USDA, and it's also makes hemp eligible for crop insurance.
For hemp growers, having hemp included in a farm bill would remove the stigma surrounding hemp production today.
“It's been demonized you know for quite some time,” said Asbury. “When my mom found out that I was doing this, she's 83 years old, and she gave me that look of, you know, kind of that that look that people give you when they're concerned, disgusted and questioning your sanity.”
Federal restrictions stand in the way of hemp production nationwide, and it’s those federal restrictions Asbury wants to see lifted.
“You've got to get your head out of the sand and look around and start researching and let the research show you the benefits," he said. "The Israelis have done a tremendous job.They're way ahead of us and it's embarrassing, and quite honestly, we've just stifled it. We've done so much stifling in our country."
While the possibility of legalizing hemp production nationwide is still on the horizon, the reality today is it's a tough crop to grow.
“It's very challenging- you don't just go to the co-op and buy your seed. there's no dealer for the seed,” added Hergert.
It's not just finding the seed, but filling out the proper permits to grow the crop. Harvest is also an uphill climb for those just entering the business.
“It does require a certain harvesting technique,” said Asbury. “Hand harvesting and cured just like tobacco almost - we're not smoking it - but we have to cure it properly or it it's not storable.”
Asbury said the risks and challenges are prevalent, but it's a crop he's growing fonder of by the day.
“There's a possibility for this to be a wonderful medicine,” said Asbury. “I consider kale a medicine -- eat your kale, be healthy, eat your beets, be healthy, eat or lettuce, be healthy. I look at this plant and I'm a believer.”
As hemp producers rally around the crop, they hope the legal barriers are soon buried, and it's creating high hopes of how demand could soon soar.
Related story: Cannabis Named a Commodity Crop in the 2018 Farm Bill