TORRINGTON — The Goshen County economy has taken some blows in recent years.
First, the Wyoming Ethanol production facility closed its doors and sent 20 employees out into the cold. The shutdown facility was a blow for local agriculture as well, as it bought 3.5 million bushels of corn per year.
Then came the long, drawn-out shut down of the Western Sugar beet sugar processing facility, which had been in operation in Torrington for nearly 100 years. Almost 200 people lost their jobs in the shutdown, and were turned out into a local economy that simply can’t support them.
The rotting hull of the factory looms in the city’s modest skyline, where it stands as a token of Torrington’s bad luck. It’s a sign that unless some company or entrepreneur decides to take a stake in Torrington, the future is – at best – uncertain.
But on March 6, Gov. Mark Gordon signed House Bill 171 into law. The bill was a sweeping legalization of hemp farming and production in the Cowboy State – a 180-degree turnaround for the traditionally conservative Wyoming Legislature. It followed the federal government’s 2018 Farm Bill that reclassified hemp as an agricultural product, as opposed to a Schedule I narcotic, therefore opening up a world of possibilities to any state willing to try its hand at a new industry – and Wyoming is ready.
The bill could be the savior the Goshen County economy is looking for – but there could be some stigma attached.
Until a few weeks ago, one of the most diverse agricultural products in the world was illegal in Wyoming.
Hemp was actually listed as Schedule 1 controlled substance in the United States until Dec. 20, 2018. That put it on par with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, Quaaludes and bath salts.
Cannabis Sativa has numerous uses – 25,000 of them, according to the Wyoming Farm Bureau. It can be used in health supplements, building materials, textiles and many other industries. It grows fast and the climate in Goshen County might be perfect for it.
But it is very closely related to another product that remains highly illegal in Wyoming – marijuana.
Wyoming’s marijuana laws are amongst the strictest in the country. Just three ounces could send someone to jail for a year, and selling it – no matter how much or how little – could net a felony charge and a decade behind bars, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The biggest thing to know about hemp, according to farmer and hemp advocate Colby Ochsner, is that it’s not marijuana.
“A person could go out into a hemp field and try to smoke every plant out there, and they would never get high,” Ochsner said.
“A lot of people explain it like hemp is the cousin to marijuana. It shares the same plant family, but it’s a different species. The psychoactive component in marijuana is THC – hemp is extremely low in THC, and I think the licensing requirements are going to require that to be low.”
Wyoming’s new hemp law dictates hemp grown in the state will contain less than 0.3 percent THC, and the bill set aside substantial funding to research and establish a testing process for Wyoming products, according to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture website.
According to research conducted by Dr. Caitlin Youngquist for the University of Wyoming, there are distinct differences between cannabis plants grown for agricultural use and those grown for their psychoactive properties.
“Consider the difference between sugar beets and table beets,” Youngquist wrote. “One species, but two different cultivars with very different uses.”
The cultivars that will be legal in Wyoming are very low in THC. The difference in the plants is that industrial hemp cultivars are hollow, which allows more energy to be directed into the production of bark fiber, Youngquist wrote. The recreational variety is more solid.
The plant that will potentially be grown and processed in Wyoming is very different from the recreational variety legalized in Colorado. The bill wasn’t without controversy, but according to Goshen County Economic Development Corporation CEO Ashley Harpstreith, it has gained the support of the state’s lawmakers.
“It’s not marijuana,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that it flew through the legislature like it did. That shows the support right there. It’s been a controversial topic.”
Growing hemp in Wyoming and – by extension, in Goshen County – will have to wait for federal guidelines passed down by the United States Department of Agriculture, which are due to be released in the fall. But still, Wyoming has been proactive in submitting its plan for safely and legally producing the crop. The goal, according to the WDA, is to submit Wyoming’s plans to the USDA within 30 days of the bill signing.
Director Doug Miyamoto said the WDA is on top of it.
“Any ag opportunity that can provide some diversification for our producers is good news for us,” Miyamoto said. “We’ve been hard at work negotiating with the USDA already regarding the submission of plans and the approval of those plans to give us delegated authority as a state to pursue this to the highest degree that we can.
“We look forward to the challenge and we’re working on it already. We’re working on the rules already, and we’ll begin negotiations with our counterparts at the USDA immediately.”
Once the state government and federal government can agree that Wyoming’s plan for cultivation and harvesting is solid, it will be up to farmers to figure out what to do with it. According to Ochsner, it could take a few years for producers to find the best method for producing hemp, and to decide to take the risk.
“Do you grow it as a row crop or do you drill it? Do you broadcast it?” he said. “The learning curve could be steep at first because of the seed cost. That’s probably where some of the opportunity lies, too.”
Ochsner said he believes hemp would flourish in Goshen County’s climate.
“I have researched it a little bit, and I think because it’s a cousin of marijuana – which they call weed – hemp almost grows like a weed,” he said. “It favors some the same conditions. There’s not a whole lot of water requirements for it. It likes our soils and there is definitely a possibility.”
According to Youngquist, there are four types of hemp cultivars and each of them produce different products and therefore need a different environment to thrive. Oilseed and fiber cultivars are raised as field crops, while cannabidiol plants, which are used to produce health supplements, are raised in greenhouses. The fourth type is a dual-purpose field crop that can be used for fiber or oilseed.
According to agweb.com, farmers in Kentucky have found that CBD cultivars require a high level of maintenance if they’re grown in a field, including constant weeding and vigilance. Oilseed and fiber cultivars require less maintenance and have a quicker turnaround.
Youngquist wrote the plants mature and are ready to harvest at about the same rate as corn, but quicker than sugar beets.
“Like most field crops, industrial hemp will perform best in well-drained, medium-textured soil with adequate water, good fertility and high organic matter,” she wrote. “Maximum production will be realized with inputs similar to a high-yielding grain.”
Ochsner said he hopes the University of Wyoming would be able to lead the way in figuring out the best practices for farming hemp.
“Ideally, there’d be a relationship with growers and SAREC,” he said. “These first few years, the seeds are going to have to be imported from Europe or Canada. No one is going to know the best practice to grow it. You could grow it and harvest using similar practices. You could bale it, like a hay bale, or combining it. You might need some different screens in the combines because it’s a really small seed.”
Hemp production is only legal in 19 states, and 25,000 acres were planted last year nationwide, according to pewtrusts.org. Still, the Hemp Industries Association estimated that hemp products fetched $688 million in the United States in 2016.
Helping local farmers grasp the agricultural side of the hemp business is something that has been on Harpstreith’s radar. The GCEDC is part of a group hosting the Wyoming Agricultural Diversification Summit to discuss hemp with Wyoming producers on April 11 in Casper. The event will feature speakers who are knowledgeable about the hemp industry, and an update about the WDA’s plan from Miyamoto.
“That’s what we’re working on now,” she said. “How do we get it into the ground? What does that harvest look like? What are the products we can market from this, and what are those opportunities and what do those look like?
“We want to pull the whole eastern side of Wyoming, all of those producers, we want to pull those into a central location and discuss it and bring in people that understand. We want to talk about how they can take advantage of it, how they can get their ground ready for it, what it looks like. We’ll be teaming up with the University of Wyoming research stations. That’s all coming together right now in April. We’ll be sending out lots of information about that so our producers can attend and educate themselves.”
Like everything in agriculture, there is some risk involved. It’s a new crop and the foundation of a relatively new industry in the United States. Youngquist’s research states that it’s mostly resistant to frost and pests, but it’s still a gamble until it gets in the ground. Agweb.com said guidelines in Kentucky and North Dakota prohibit the use of any chemical herbicides and pesticides – which could leave a crop vulnerable.
The biggest risk, though, is the unknown.
“Production costs and returns are highly speculative at this point,” Youngquist wrote. “The hemp industry is limited to a few licensed growers with highly regulated access to see and restricted markets for their products.”
That said, Ochsner is optimistic – and eager to try a test crop on his farm.
“A lot of southern states, like North Carolina and Kentucky, they’ve been pursuing hemp pretty seriously over the past few years,” he said. “They’ve grown it fairly well there, but they say that’s not the climate that hemp does the greatest in. It may do better in dryer climates or northern climates like ours, as opposed to the hot and muggy climate in the southern states.
“I want to plant it first on my farm and be able to experience it.”
Before Gordon signed HB 171 into law, Harpstreith and the GCEDC were already hard at work trying to figure out how Goshen County could fit into the hemp industry.
While sugar beets and corn have been the primary cash crops in Goshen County for decades, it might be tough for more conservative producers to see why they should consider hemp. According to Harpstreith, it’s a versatile crop and producers should educate themselves on the different between hemp and marijuana before making a decision.
“It’s an all-natural product with lots of uses,” she said. “There are endless possibilities for by-products. Our job in this is not to speculate, but to provide education and a platform, and an opportunity to connect producers with potential manufacturers or businesses looking to relocate and open up to this. They could be right here at the source for it growing. We also have SAREC in our backyard that can test all sorts of things.”
According to New Frontier Data, being at the source of the product could pay off. By 2022, the market for CBD oil, a health supplement derived from hemp, is projected to grow into a $2 billion industry – and that’s just one product, from one type of hemp.
Once all of the laws and regulations are put in place, farming is only part of the equation.
Turning the raw hemp into a usable product is, according to Ochsner, the key to economic growth.
“I think you have to be able to capture some of that potential,” he said. “I think that is going to be the key for our county and our area. If we want to really see hemp be a viable crop into the future, we have to find a way to capture some of those valued-added opportunities. That’s finding out a way to process into something beyond the raw good.”