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Number of N.D. farmers growing hemp jumps from 5 to 35

Chris Zenker, a farmer from Gackle, looks for space to place one more bag of industrial hemp seeds in his pickup truck Wednesday.

CARRINGTON -- Chris Zenker drove from Gackle to a farm just north of Carrington in east-central North Dakota on Wednesday morning to pick up enough industrial hemp seed to plant 100 acres.

Zenker is one of 35 farmers and growers who received a special license from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp for 2017 -- an increase from just five farmers last year.

“We heard it (industrial hemp) grows good on poor soils,” Zenker said, “so we’re going to try it on some poor soils and see how it does.”

Zenker said he is trying hemp as a way to introduce a different crop in the rotation. He said he also likes that hemp has the potential to be a cash crop.

Zenker traveled to the farm of Roger Gussiaas. Gussiaas’ farm received the largest of four shipments of industrial hemp seed, 64,000 pounds, that the state Department of Agriculture had shipped from Canada for distribution to farmers and growers approved to grow hemp in 2017. The state will receive a total of 84,250 pounds of industrial hemp seed this year with seed distributed in 50-pound bags.

Gussiaas said last year he grew 15 acres of hemp as part of the state’s pilot project. He said he found hemp to be an easy-growing crop.

“It’s a fun crop to watch grow because it grows so fast,” he said.

Gussiaas said hemp does a good job of canopying the ground, which helps prevent weeds from growing. He said he liked growing hemp because it produces a great oilseed. He and his family run a business called Healthy Oil Seeds from the farm that processes and exports oilseeds to 18 countries.

“Hemp is very healthy, well-balanced oilseed,” he said. “It’s one of the only vegetable sources that has the same type of amino acids as meat.”

Rachel Spilde, a plant protection specialist and industrial hemp project coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture, said in 2016 the department had 17 growers apply to be part of North Dakota’s pilot hemp growing project. Only five growers were chosen and 70 acres were planted. She said this year 42 growers applied and 35 were chosen. They will plant 3,000 acres of industrial hemp.

Spilde said the Agriculture Department collected data from the five growers on industrial hemp. She said the growers reported the grain they harvested from the hemp was high quality and had high yields.

“The producers also had an easier time harvesting the grain than we anticipated,” she said.

Spilde said all of the industrial hemp seed arriving in North Dakota is permitted through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. All growers who applied to the program underwent background checks. All who were selected signed agreements with the Agriculture Department that include rules for securely storing the seed. Anyone who has access to the seed through the participating growers also underwent background checks.