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Removing Hemp From Controlled Substances List Is Overdue, Farmer Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Senate may vote as early as today to pass its version of the farm bill. This is sweeping legislation that funds safety net programs for farmers and major food assistance programs. While this bill varies widely from the one that was passed by the House, it has major implications for farmers who are facing tariffs and drought. As Harvest Public Media's Esther Honig reports it would legalize a long-forbidden crop.

ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: The crop is hemp. It's grown for research in farms across the country, but it's not fully legal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell championed the pilot program in the last farm bill and thinks it's time to remove hemp from the list of controlled substances. He spoke about it earlier this month.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think it's time we took this step. I think everybody's now figured it out. This is not the other plant.

HONIG: The other plant is marijuana, hemp's cousin that contains high levels of THC. But hemp does not and has lots of industrial applications from textiles to construction materials and livestock feed. Ryan Loflin farms 300 acres in southern Colorado. He thinks making hemp legal is long overdue.

RYAN LOFLIN: I really - because I believe honestly that it is the only thing that's going to kind of bring agriculture out of rut that it's been in for the last 30 years.

HONIG: More recently, prices have plunged for corn and soybeans that are in the crosshairs of an impending trade war.

In his white Ford pickup, Loflin drives to his field, where he's growing nearly 300 acres of hemp. Out here, the land is dry and covered in yellow prairie grass, but hemp grows just fine. Hemp itself is worth very little, but Loflin says hemp flowers are very valuable and can sell for as much as $100 a pound.

LOFLIN: That price - there's no comparison in anything in the world - (laughter) compared to that price, really.

HONIG: Yeah. There's, like, nothing else you could grow.

LOFLIN: There's nothing, nothing else - heroin, I mean; opium, maybe.

HONIG: This crop will be used to make CBD oil, which some people use medicinally. Once hemp is widely grown, its price will likely drop. And not everyone thinks hemp is a miracle crop. Trey Riddle is with Sunstrand, a company in Kentucky producing fiber from hemp. He says hemp won't readily compete with cheaper materials, like cotton and polyester, already on the market.

TREY RIDDLE: There is really nothing that hemp's doing that isn't already being done by something else, with maybe the exception of CBD.

HONIG: Of course, before the crop's full potential can be discovered, the farm bill has to be signed into law. Last week, the House passed its bill without a single vote from Democrats. House Republicans want stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients and cuts to major conservation programs. Now they have to come together with the Senate to hash out a compromise. Ferd Hoefner is with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and has watched the passage of the last nine farm bills. He thinks the Senate version will hold sway.

FERD HOEFNER: There will be a willingness to come to political reality and realize the bill needs to closely follow the Senate outline.

HONIG: Ultimately, the farm bill will need Democrats on board. While other measures may be scrapped, legalizing hemp appears to have widespread support. And after 77 years of heavy federal restrictions, hemp could soon be like any other commodity, allowing hemp farmers to benefit from the same federal programs as others who grow corn and soybeans. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig in Greeley, Colo.

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GREENE: Esther's story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and rural issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEARS' "THE ASSASSINATION OF DOW JONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.