HASTINGS, Minn. – Last week, John Strohfus became part of state history as the Hastings-based farmer had the honor of planting the first industrial hemp crop in Minnesota since 1950.
The business consultant and second generation small family farmer received the hemp seeds from Canada last week as one of seven farms participating in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's industrial hemp pilot program.
“Being first is really important in the industry. The reason we haven’t planted in Minnesota is because it’s been outlawed because of a federal ban. With the United States being the number-one importer of industrial hemp, why we couldn’t grow it here in the United States has been baffling to the agriculture community,” said Strohfus.
Minnesota banned hemp production when it was swept up in the federal drug ban six decades ago, but the 2014 passage of a federal farm bill and state legislation in 2015 paved the way for growth.
“I'm sort of an entrepreneurial spirit, I always have been. It's essentially a new opportunity to have a new start-up company, and a new whole industry to grow quickly in the state of Minnesota,” said Strohfus.
Strohfus planted hemp seeds across 18 acres in two secure locations, and after four days of growth, the tiny plants have already sprouted more than two inches.
“You can see the leaf is already developed and the traditional cannabis leaf,” he said, holding the small plant between his fingers.
“This will grow very quickly and very tall,” said Strohfus, who said his hemp variety will grow up to four inches a day in the 100-day growing season, and to about six feet tall by the time it’s harvested in September.
But what Stropfus hopes disappears just as fast is the stigma of a cannabis plant considered to be the distant cousin of marijuana.
“The THC level in industrial hemp is .3 percent, and it's 5 to 6 percent or even higher in marijuana so you would basically would have to smoke a whole field of it, and probably not even have an effect,” said Strohfus.
Still, the state of Minnesota had to work closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), since hemp is still considered a Schedule I narcotic. The Minnesota hemp producers had to undergo background checks, become licensed and registered with the state, and even work with local law enforcement for security purposes.
“It’s been kind of a challenging ride,” said Andrea Vaubel, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner. “But this is very exciting, a huge deal for Minnesota.”
Vaubel says with all the potential from hemp - products ranging from plastics, construction materials, clothing, food and paper - Minnesota sees economic gain.
“Canada has a $500 million dollars hemp industry, and so there are other states tapping into that, there is a lot of growth from Minnesota, our farmers can tap into that, and diversify our crops,” said Vaubel.
John Strohfus plans to produce hemp health food, to be used as a snack or mixed into items like salad and yogurt, but his emerging company will also process the fiber, utilizing every part of the hemp plant.
Strohfus is working with a farming partner Ben Thurmes, also from Hastings, as well as collaborating his industrial hemp business with Ken Anderson, a Minnesota native who has spearheaded hemp start-ups in other states, such as Kentucky.
Today, a total of 28 states are studying industrial help pilot programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state will monitor the hemp fields and study the growth scientifically, as well as track the marketing of hemp.
“I'm hopeful, in future planting years, it will open up and we won’t need that oversight, and there’s federal lobbying going on right now to get industrial hemp classified and removed from the Schedule I narcotic list,” added Strohfus.
After a long wait, Strohfus sees a quickly cultivated industry, from soil to shelf.
“I’m fairly impatient so hemp is suited for me, there’s instant gratification seeing it four days later lined up in rows, so kind of fun,” said Strohfus.
As the pilot project kicks off, two tractor companies, Value Implement of Ellsworth, Wisconsin and Niebur Implement of Miesville, Minnesota donated $400,000 worth of cutting edge equipment to Strohfus’ farm to place the hemp seeds precisely and to help best experiment how to plant the crop for other Minnesota farmers in the future.