McConnell Hemp

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, inspects a piece of hemp taken from a bale of hemp at a processing plant in Louisville, Ky. McConnell has guaranteed that his proposal to make hemp a legal agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances, will be part of the final farm bill. 

You still can’t grow recreational cannabis in Illinois, but farmers soon will be able to legally grow industrial hemp, a cannabis cousin.

The sprawling farm bill passed earlier this week by the U.S. House and Senate includes language that legalizes industrial hemp, provided it contains delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC (the intoxicating compound contained in marijuana) in a concentration of no more than 0.3 percent.

Industrial hemp can be used in the production of rope, paper, biofuels, textiles and a wide range of other products. Hemp could compete with corn, soybeans and cotton for acreage, providing a short-term boost to crop prices.

David Isermann, president of La Salle County Farm Bureau, said local farmers welcomed the legislation, insofar as they relish the freedom to grow new crops and tap into new markets. He attended the Illinois Farm Bureau convention two weeks ago and among the most attended sessions were those pertaining to hemp.

“People are talking about it,” Isermann allowed, “but nobody knows how this is going to fit in or what the acreage is going to be.”

Isermann further noted that Congress passed hemp with the farmers from the southern states in mind.

He explained that tobacco farmers are in need of a replacement crop and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushed for hemp’s legalization as a boon to farmers from the Deep South.

The upshot is that Illinois farmers will grow some hemp in 2019, but mostly for research and development. Most will wait for a market to emerge and for medical research showing benefits of hemp oils, one of the products with apparent market potential.

Darren Walter, who farms in the Grand Ridge area, said his father remembered a time when hemp was grown for rope production. The crop then was limited, however, and will remain so until farmers have enough information to gauge the market against the regulatory hurdles that could undercut the crop’s profitability.

“It’s below the radar until we see what the rules and regulations are,” Walter said. “If you pull 10 acres out of production and you have to jump through a lot of hoops, it will offset any financial benefit.

“Don’t look for it to overtake corn and soybeans.”

Isermann went a step further: Hemp is in no danger of snatching acres from pumpkins and horseradish. Illinois is the No. 1 grower of both.

Nevertheless, McConnell’s push for legalization yielded swift results on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. House voted 369-47 to the legislation on Wednesday; U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) both voted yes. A day earlier, the Senate approved it 87-13. U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) both voted yes.

Kinzinger said the hemp provisions were key because the plant is renewable and used for an array of sustainable products including clothes, paper and textiles.

“Once this Farm Bill is signed into law, the plant will be recognized as an agricultural crop on a national level, which is good for farmers and the economy,” Kinzinger said.

With the exception of the World War II period, the growing of hemp had been illegal since the adoption of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Prior to that, industrial hemp had been grown in the United States since colonial times.

The legalization of hemp had been closely watched by farmers in North Central Illinois. Last month, the Illinois AgriNews reported industrial hemp was its most-followed story line on the paper’s digital media.

Springfield actually beat Congress to the punch earlier this year, though former President Barack Obama opened the door for states to legalize industrial hemp in 2015. That removed opposition from Illinois Republicans who had blocked previous attempts to legalize the plant in the state.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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