KELLER — The Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT) planted 120 irrigated acres of industrial hemp last June, and had a successful harvest in October of an average yield of 2.5 tons per acre on fiber and around 800 pounds of seed per acre.
They were the only industrial hemp-growing operation in Washington state under the state Department of Agriculture
(WSDA)’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot (IHRP) to grow in 2018.
The CCT bought a combination state license allowing them to grow, possess, process and market industrial hemp for research purposes, and harvested their first crop in 2017.
They doubled the acreage planted in 2018.
“Part of our research included germination rates and pounds per acre,” said Jackie Richter with the Colville Conservation District, who initiated the project for the tribes. “We found that contrary to others, the varietie s we used were very successful at 18 pounds per acre.”
Richter said they were allowed to grow for fiber as well as seed this year, but due to state regulations and “last-minute decisions” on rules about crossing state lines, they were not able to cross state lines with the baled fiber last fall.
“Currently, the tribe is licensed through the state, which means we have to adhere to state guidelines. However, with the passing of the farm bill, Tribes and Universities will be able to have their own programs through the federal government with minimal requirements,” said Richter. “So we are looking to the future.”
The 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, legalizing hemp production. However, according to the WSDA, a legislative change to the IHRP statutes in Washington state law is still needed for the program to be consistent with the changes in the Farm Bill regarding hemp. Until then, WSDA will continue to manage the IHRP under existing state law.
Richter said she sees a lot of potential for hemp in the area with the passage of the farm bill.
By law, all industrial hemp must contain a THC concentration of 0.3 percent or less by dry weight. THC, or terahydrocannabinol, is the component of marijuana that gets a user “high.” According to the WSDA, if any aspect of an industrial hemp projects tests higher for THC, it no longer meets the definition of industrial hemp.
IHRP currently requires a four-mile separation between hemp and marijuana crops to prevent cross-pollination, until more research is done on how cannabis pollen spreads.
Richter said the tribe has been focused on seed variety research and growing, as well as harvesting and market research. They are required under the license to provide annual reports to the state.
According to the WSDA, research goals of the IHRP include topics ranging from industrial hemp seed planting depth to Genomics-assisted crop improvements, as well as processing and marketing the product.
“Growing a new crop is continual data gathering, from the purchase of the seed, through the planting, growing and harvesting; and then development of value-added products or wholesale. You are continually assessing what worked, what didn’t and how shall we tweak it next year to make it more cost-effective,” said Richter. “This crop is constant research, from seed variety to growing, to harvesting equipment, to processing and available markets.”
Richter said the CCT tried out new varieties of seed in 2018 .
“There are so many varieties and more coming every year. Just like marijuana, each variety is different and they all depend on your climate, soil and care as to what kind of performance you will get and if they are right for you,” said Richter. “We are looking forward to all the research that is coming out from growers and universities.”
New guidelines issued from the federal government through USDA’s National Institute of Feed and Agriculture allow federal funding for research into industrial hemp agriculture to universities and colleges.
Despite hemp being one of mankind’s oldest domesticated crops, research into the product is burgeoning.
“We are definitely in the learning and development stages of this industry, even though we know it can be grown,” said Richter. “Product demand and acreage has exploded, creating a need for processing, manufacturing, specialized equipment development, markets, supply chains, access to certified seed, and we’re needing more agronomical information on varieties.”
Richter said that while the CCT’s pilot crop remained in the same location in 2018 as the previous year due to equipment and irrigation capabilities, she believes there are many areas within the reservation boundaries that should be great for hemp.
“Hemp is an amazing plant and it will grow in most soil, but it prefers well-drained soils and is nitrogen sensitive and needs proper nutrients and fertility to be productive,” said Richter.
Richter pointed out some of the many ways hemp crops benefit the environment.
“Hemp is known for its benefits to soil, and it’s phytoremediation capabilities because it is fast-growing, has deep roots, and is unaffected by the toxins it accumulates from the soil and air,” said Richter. “And while hemp is cleaning the soil, it can act as a carbon sink, to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s got a great root system for soil aeration while providing biomass and organic matter. It can be a great cover crop, out-competing weeds and beneficial for crop rotation. And the bees love it!”
Richter also sees hemp production as very beneficial to local economy.
“I believe that hemp, along with a wider regenerative agriculture program, can have a significant positive economic impact on Colville Tribal members, in Indian Country and beyond. The hemp industry is ready to explode and with over 25,000 different uses for hemp, everyone can find a niche,” said Richter.