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Wyoming Department of Agriculture

Hemp industry, Ag Department await USDA response to state’s regulatory plan

in News/Agriculture/Business
CBD oil
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Hemp could be a cash crop for Wyoming growers in coming years, but seeds can’t be sown until the U.S. Department of Agriculture signs off on the state’s regulatory program.

“We have not heard much back from the USDA,” said Stacia Berry, Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) deputy director. “They anticipate having their rules out this fall.”

Hemp was legalized in 2018 after President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which allows ag producers to grow hemp as long as the plants contain no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

In February, the Wyoming Legislature approved legislation removing hemp products from regulation by the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act, giving rule-making authority to the WDA and requiring the department to submit a state plan for the regulation of hemp to the USDA.

The WDA plan was submitted to the USDA in April.

Regulating hemp

Hemp is marijuana with a THC level lower than 0.3 percent and is grown for three primary products: Cannabidoil (CBD), seeds and grains.   

“(THC) is a genetic trait that you select for,” Berry said. “One of the things that can be a little tricky is, like any crop, it can change a little under stress, like heat or water stress.”

The WDA’s analytical services lab in Laramie will be tasked with testing hemp crops before harvest to ensure the plants have not crossed the allowable THC threshold, she said.

“We will have inspectors that go to the different farms and do testing, collect samples, then return those samples to the lab,” Berry explained.

Additionally, she said her department will work closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure the regulatory guidelines are followed.

The discussion about how to appropriately regulate hemp began about five years ago.

“We have worked extensively with other states’ departments of agriculture,” Berry said. “Especially in regards to understanding their approach to regulation: What has worked for them, what hasn’t worked.” The WDA gained significant insight from the Colorado and Kentucky licensing and testing protocols.

“Those are two of your highest-producing hemp states,” Berry explained.  

Processing and education

Ag plays a major role in economic development throughout the Bighorn Basin, so Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership, has spent the last year cultivating relationships with potential partners in the hemp industry. 

“There’s 25,000 to 50,000 products that can be made with hemp,” Bekes said. “Right now, most of the processors are looking at the CBD oil extraction.”

The biggest challenge for growers in the coming years is finding partners on the processing side, she said. 

“Our growers can grow anything, but if we can’t get it to market, it doesn’t do us any good,” Berry said. “I would caution any grower not to grow hemp without a contract.”

Once the USDA approves the regulatory program, processors can cement plans for building facilities to accommodate the predicted influx of hemp in 2020. Until then, Bekes said it’s important to bring as many partners as possible to the discussion table.  

“The biggest component is education,” she explained. “If people are considering hemp as an opportunity, whether it’s growing, processing or end products, I would really emphasize education, awareness and communication.”

The Wyoming Hemp Association, www.wyhemp.org, could be an information source for interested parties in the future, along with the WDA and University of Wyoming.

Jim Heitholt, director of the UW Powell Research and Extension Center Agricultural Experiment Station, confirmed his staff would conduct basic studies about the the viability of hemp crops in the Bighorn Basin once the USDA approved the WDA plan. As the new year draws near, both Bekes and the WDA said they’ve seen increased interest in hemp from around the state, but so far, it’s been a waiting game.

“Right now, we’re all preparing for it to be in the ground in 2020,” Bekes said. “In the meantime, the Wyoming Hemp Association has reviewed the WDA plan and engaged in conversations with the WDA and law enforcement. Growers and processors continue to work in the background.”

Wyoming ag dwindles as gross domestic product, but continues strong as cultural commodity

in News/Agriculture
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Once the subject of high expectations, Wyoming’s agriculture industry was plagued with obstacles from the outset.

Despite erratic climate conditions and the absence of irrigation infrastructure, settlers doubled down on their efforts to till the Great Plains for more than 100 years. 

“Many people in the East thought it inevitable that farms would supersede the stockman in Wyoming, quite a few people in Wyoming thought so, too,” T.A. Larson wrote in “History of Wyoming.”

Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming professor of history emeritus and author of the “Wyoming Almanac,” said the weather during the early years of Wyoming settlement was deceptively mild.

“One important thing to bear in mind is when Wyoming was being settled, the weather was very favorable for agriculture,” Roberts said.

The great blizzards of the 1870s, unreliable precipitation at the turn of the 20th century and a 10-year drought during the Great Depression, however, proved to be more than most of the state’s first ag producers could handle.

By the 1970s, the ag industry only accounted for about 10 percent of Wyoming’s gross domestic product, said Wenlin Liu, chief economist at the Wyoming Administration and Information Economic Analysis Division. Today, Liu said the ag industry makes up about 1 percent of Wyoming’s gross domestic product.

Howdy, partner

At a glance, Wyoming in the mid-1800s offered settlers ample resources to build a thriving agriculture economy.

“One aspect that was always involved in people’s aspirations was there was an awful lot of land in Wyoming, and awful lot of river valleys — all they had to do was figure out how to get the water to the land,” Roberts said. “One of the problems came with financing those projects. None of the farmers had much money.”

Through legislation and the efforts of the Bureau of Reclamation, water projects started appearing across the state in the early 1900s. The final piece to the puzzle was transporting the produce.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of the three big railroads — Union Pacific, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and Chicago North Western Transportation Company,” Roberts said. “They were extraordinarily fundamental for farmers getting their product to market.”

During the 1920s and ’30s, small farms and ranches began consolidating into big corporations, hurting both the banking industry and small communities. With the damage done by the end of the World War II, the ag industry might have withered away were it not for a growth of interest in Wyoming’s subterranean resources. 

“The arrival of oil and gas drilling helped a number of those remaining small, family operations,” Roberts explained.

Farmers and ranchers worked above ground while minerals companies reaped the resources below. With railroad infrastructure already installed to transport both industries’ products to market, ag and energy worked in concert toward a more robust, albeit erratic, Wyoming economy.

Whoa, boy!

The Bureau of Economic Analysis provides economic data as far back as 1969, but painting a picture of the ag market prior to that is difficult, Liu said.

In 1997, the bureau changed its methodology for collecting data on the industry, further complicating the process of direct comparison.

“I am not sure how good you could use the new methodology on the old data to compare it to today’s data,” Liu said. 

Despite the discrepancy, the data illustrates a stagnant labor market. In 1969, the bureau reported that farm employment accounted for 14,393 of the state’s total 157,954 jobs — about 9 percent. Nearly 50 years later, in 2017, the bureau recorded 14,680 jobs in farm employment, about 4 percent of the state’s 398,199 total jobs.

While technology filled many labor gaps on the farm, Stacia Berry, deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, said recruiting laborers remains one of the industry’s biggest hurdles.

“One of the challenges is finding the workforce to do the work,” Berry explained. “A lot of those jobs have shifted from American workers to bringing in workers from afar.”

Recent changes to the federal H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program created more complications for ag producers, she said. Additionally, the country’s trade situation with the world abroad is hurting the pockets of hometown Wyoming. 

“We’re still waiting for finalization of the (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement), the international trade agreement with Canada and Mexico,” Berry said. “With that in flux at the same time as a trade war with China and the intense tariffs being put on agricultural commodities … that provides a lot of uncertainty, which creates some market problems.”

Wagons, ho

As an economic industry, ag might be a shadow of its former self, but it could still play a significant role in the state’s future, Berry said.

“In Wyoming’s economy, ag is foundational,” she explained. “We look at it as the third leg of an economic stool — energy, tourism and agriculture.”

Without access to the open land provided largely by ag, the energy sector could struggle to expand and as a culture and the ag community draws many of Wyoming’s visitors, she said.

Roberts said the era of dude ranches finds roots as deep as the 1960s, simultaneously decreasing the industry’s produce contribution to the state’s gross domestic product and paving an avenue for small, family-owned operations to continue their agricultural traditions.

Viewed through the lens of economic analysis, Liu said some nationwide studies indicate the ag industry’s impact on the country’s gross domestic product could be as high as 5 percent when taking into account the industries it supports such as tourism, food retail and transportation.

In Wyoming, Berry said agri-tourism, a term referring to visitors attracted by bed and breakfast resorts, corn mazes and dude ranches, is growing by leaps and bounds.

“As far as the culture of ag, ag is special, and it’s special to the people of Wyoming,” Berry said. “There’s something very romantic about the Western cowboy and I think we see that when we have talks with trading partners across the globe. People love the wide open spaces here, which is really due in part to the ag community.”

More than 1,500 students in Cheyenne for “Agriculture in the Classroom” event

in News/wildlife/Education/Agriculture
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More than 1,500 grade school students from around Wyoming gathered in Cheyenne on Friday to learn more about the state’s agriculture industry.

The students were in Cheyenne for the Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom program’s 25th annual “Bookmark and Beyond” celebration, where student showed off their designs for agriculture-themed bookmarks and learned about different aspects of the industry.

Among the activities for students was a hands-on session with a mapping system that allows users to locate a pasture and count and track the cows in it.

Ala Telck, president of Sheridan’s AgTerra Technologies, said his company donated the money for the software used at the celebration because of the growing importance of technology in agriculture.

“Technology is not going to go away, it’s only going to become more important,” he said. “We want to help our youth embrace and become very good at this technology.”

Many of the students attending the event live on farms and ranches in Wyoming and Doug Miyamoto, the director of the state Department of Agriculture, said such a background instills those children with a sense of responsibility.

“Those kids start working at a very early age and there’s a lot expected and demanded of them and I think they understand that,” he said. “A lot of the kids that come from agricultural backgrounds know what their expectations are and they perform to that level.”

Matt Micheli, an Agriculture in the Classroom board member who grew up on a ranch near Fort Bridger, agreed.

“I think it creates a real work ethic, but also an understanding of responsibility, that when something’s entrusted to you, that you have to follow through,” he said.

The winning bookmark design unveiled during the event came from Dawson George of Cody, whose illustration showed cows, pheasants and oil wells.

What’s next for hemp in Wyoming?

in News/Agriculture
Wyoming approves hemp production sale of CBD oil
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 By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

When Gov. Mark Gordon signed HB 171 into law Wednesday, he made it legal to for farmers to grow industrial hemp and sell hemp-based products like CBD oil in Wyoming.

But it likely will be a while before farmers will harvest the first hemp crop from the Cowboy State’s soil, given all that’s required to start the regulatory process.

Derek Grant, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, said Friday that he would not speculate on when the program would begin. It might be this fall, but perhaps later, he said. “We’re going to move as quickly as we can,” Grant said.  “We’re moving with a sense of urgency with a good dose of caution.”

Approval of HB171 comes after changes occurred in the 2018 USDA farm bill to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The latest farm bill considers the plant as a regulated agriculture crop.

Hemp is a plant that can be used to make paper, clothing, textiles, food, shoes, building materials and thousands of other products.  The plant is part of the cannabis family but contains only trace amounts of THC – a psychoactive chemical – compared to marijuana.

HB 171 requires farmers to apply to the Agriculture Department for a license to grow hemp. The department is working to develop the required forms. It’s also completing a plan detailing the operation of regulatory program. The plan must be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture within 30 days after the bill’s signing.

The law provides $315,000 to the state Agriculture Department to buy equipment that will test the concentration of THC in hemp to make sure it stays below 0.3 percent.  A higher THC content means the hemp will be categorized as marijuana. The bill also provides $120,000 to hire and train people to get the program going.

Rep. Bucky Loucks, R-Casper, sponsored the bill, which won strong approval in both the Senate and House this legislative session. Supporters say it will help Wyoming’s farmers develop a cash crop and diversify the state’s economy.

“I think anytime we can have more opportunity to diversify and find more products in Wyoming is a good thing,” Grant said. “We just want to make sure we do it right.” 

He urges farmers to check the department’s web page for more information.

Ron Rabou and his family operate an organic wheat farm near Albin in Laramie County. Rabou, a long-time supporter of growing industrial hemp,  said he is excited about the new law. 

“The big positive here is that we have a bill now that will provide massive opportunities for Wyoming ag producers,” he said.

But he cautions that farmers must make sure there are markets to buy the crop. Farmers who produce hemp must become experts regarding market demands, he said. 

“This is not going to be where all of a sudden, we can start growing hemp and it will make immediate profitability,” he said.  “In my opinion, it will take years for those markets to develop.”

“I think it’s great to be excited. But just because this bill got passed, doesn’t  mean (there will be) an immediate effect on the ag economy,” Rabou continued. “Be careful about jumping in with both feet at this point. Unless you have a market where you can sell your crop, having all the product in the world will not make a difference.”

For more information on the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s hemp program, visit the department’s website at: https://wyoagric.state.wy.us/

For more information on Rabou Farms, visit its website at: http://www.raboufarms.com/

In Brief: Hemp bill clears Senate

in News/Agriculture
Hemp crop field, ALT=Wyoming hemp production
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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill legalizing the production and possession of hemp and hemp products and setting up a regulatory process for the crop was approved by the Senate on Monday.

HB 171, creating a licensing process to be followed by Wyoming farmers who wish to raise hemp, was approved on a vote of 26-2.

Congress last year approved a bill legalizing the production of hemp. Hemp, while related to marijuana, lacks the active compounds that produce marijuana’s “high.”

Wyoming in 2017 had approved legislation allowing the state to develop hemp as a viable crop. HB 171 would require the state Department of Agriculture to license hemp growers and to test crops to make sure they do not contain the compounds found in marijuana.

The bill provides $440,000 to finance the Agriculture Department’s work on regulations and testing.

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