It was legal to cultivate hemp in Idaho for the first-time last year, but it has been illegal to produce and sell the plant for almost a century. Farmers are now able to obtain licenses from the state to grow and process the crop this season. | Courtesy of IND HEMP, a Montana hemp production firm
Industrial hemp legalization in Idaho, which allows farmers to cultivate the crop without fear of federal penalties, may have arrived at precisely the right moment for Idaho agriculture, despite years of severe drought and a push for more sustainable resources to lower carbon emissions.
Hemp has been used for thousands of years and is thought to be one of the first crops cultivated by humans. However, it was only legal to grow in Idaho last year. Farmers have received licenses from the state to cultivate and handle hemp during this growing season for things like insulation, paper, oil, and food items.
Idaho was the 50th state to legalize industrial hemp, with a bill that passed the Idaho Legislature in April 2021. Braden Jensen, deputy government affairs director for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said his organization has been pushing for the policy change for almost 20 years, but the passage of the 2018 federal farm bill made it a priority during the 2021 legislative session. The legalization offers farmers an opportunity to diversify their operations, according to him.
“The Idaho legislature took a very methodical and thorough approach, really researching and comprehending what it would mean to open this sector to farmers in the state and really looking at it with our eyes wide open,” said Jensen.
The bill included an emergency provision to ensure that the law took effect as soon after it was enacted in both houses of the Legislature, forcing a rushed timetable for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
In January, the Department of Agriculture’s Mike Tewalt said that two possibilities exist when a state legalizes hemp: The USDA may either regulate the industry or the state may regulate it. Idaho opted for the latter alternative and permitted hemp production, processing, transportation, and study throughout the state under certain conditions. However, those regulations had to be drawn up by the department.
“It really started our summer off in a frantic manner,” Tewalt added. “We had a lot of cooperation from law enforcement, and none of this would have been possible without it.”
The department conducted two open meetings that Tewalt reported were well attended by individuals with extensive industry expertise from previous connections with other states where the practice has been lawful for years. The USDA gave Idaho’s state plan for hemp regulation the green light in late October, and the department opened licensing applications in early November.
Hemp vs. marijuana: Like Great Danes vs. chihuahuas
There are two forms of legal authorization for hemp in Idaho: handlers and producers. Handlers may process raw hemp materials, such as seeds, into other substances, but they aren’t allowed to cultivate the crop. A licensed producer can produce and market the crop, including seeds.
Both licenses must be renewed annually, and both need a background check. Producers will have their hemp lots tested for acceptable levels of tetrahydrocannabinol content – also known as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – after harvest.
Hemp and marijuana are both members of the cannabis family, known as sativa. However, hemp has a completely distinct genetic makeup from marijuana.
“I’ve heard people compare it to dog breeds,” Tewalt added. “The Great Danes and chihuahuas are of the same species, but they’re quite different in terms of what they really are.”
The state’s main duty as the regulator of hemp, according to HB 1523, will be to test production lots and ensure that THC levels comply with the legal threshold. In addition, law enforcement officials can continue testing and taking samples from a vehicle transporting hemp in order to determine its THC content.
“Every single crop that is produced will be sampled, and our sample size is decided by the size of the lot, the acreage. The hemp can’t go anywhere since it belongs to them. They can’t receive an acceptable lab result until their hemp has been tested.”
For a good result, the detection level must be 0.3% or less. If the lot tests above that threshold, the crop must be destroyed or mixed with a different strain to reduce the THC concentration.
Tewalt said that the state has received 60 applications thus far, with eight having been fully authorized — four handlers, three producers, and one handler/producer.
Want to find out more on your own?
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s website has information on the laws and regulations surrounding industrial hemp, as well as the information needed to apply for a license. Even seasoned hemp producers in other states should review Idaho’s rules and contact with questions, according to Deputy Director Chanel Tewalt.
“Never assume, always ask,” Tewalt said.
Two companies plan very different uses for hemp legalization in Idaho
Hempitecture Inc., a firm based in Ketchum that specializes in hemp building materials, was the first to receive a handler license. Mattie Mead, the company’s founder, said the main objective for Hempitecture going forward will be hemp wool, a fiber-backed insulating material. The firm is establishing a production line for hemp wool at its Jerome County plant by investing in infrastructure and machinery.
“Hemp wool is safe to touch and handle, with no gloves necessary. As a result, the installers, subcontractors, and ultimately the homeowner benefit. It allows for a better indoor air quality because it does not contain any (volatile organic compounds).”
Hemp, according to University of Illinois extension hemp specialist Andy Mead, is also drought-resistant. This is beneficial in a state with a desert climate that is expected to see an increase in low water years as the climate changes.
Since 2013, Hempitecture has been in operation, but it worked in a legal gray area when it came to handling and transportation, according to Mead. The company got hemp from Montana and other parts of the Northwest, but the legalization allows him to bring the supply chain into Idaho.
“We see industrial hemp as an economic opportunity for Idaho, and we see a future in which it can be grown 10 miles from our facility rather than 10 hours away,” Mead added.
The first applicant to get a license for processing and producing was Tim Cornie of 1000 Springs Mill in Buhl. Cornie stated that their organic farm produces beans, grains, and other items that are marketed in retail stores and locally. Starting out, Cornie wants to plant a modest hemp lot and use it for health products like protein bars and shakes. Hemp contains more protein than soybeans is often easier to digest, according on Cornie.
Cornie isn’t worried about the dangers of sampling lots, since he is certain they will not exceed 0.3 percent. He went on to say that there shouldn’t be a worry about a licensed hemp farmer growing marijuana in a hemp field because the two would cross-pollinate, rendering the cannabis useless as a drug.
“(Seeds) can spread nine to 12 miles and destroy a cannabis crop,” Cornie added. “If you’re a marijuana grower, you don’t want any hemp grain around.”