On a sprawling farm in Maricopa, his family’s land has been cultivated by Kelly Anderson for decades.
Ornamental plants are grown by him, dehydrated foliage and wheat which are sold in craft shops. Another possibly more profitable crop: industrial hemp, is being eyed by farmers like Anderson, although demand for the decorative plants is high.
An assortment of the cannabis plant, industrial hemp is used to make rope, paper, cosmetics, food and textiles. It features low levels of marijuana’s main psychoactive substance, but doesn’t create a high. Until lately, it couldn’t be lawfully grown anywhere in the U.S. and was imported from Canada, China, Europe, Russia and elsewhere.
“It uses less water than cotton, it’s a very heat-tolerant plant and we need a good rotation-kind crop to help the soil,” Anderson said. “Instead of growing cotton after cotton after cotton, or hay after hay after hay, you could rotate this. This could be used to help the ag economy and we’re always trying to expand our production base”
Two state lawmakers are looking into to legalizing hemp cultivation in Arizona.
The procedure to produce, distribute and sell hemp in Arizona would be set up by Senate Bill 1337 through a program managed by the state agriculture department. Processors and growers would be asked to pass criminal background checks and would need to maintain comprehensive records about growing locations. Harvests could possibly be inspected and tested by agriculture officials, and in the event the plants were discovered to have more than 0.3 percent of THC on a dry-weight basis, the crop can be destroyed and farmers can be prohibited from future hemp growing.
State agriculture officials declined to talk about the legislation. Hemp production is supported by the Arizona Farm Bureau, a spokeswoman said, but wants to ensure the price to regulate it isn’t burdensome to the state.
“This is about rope, not dope,” Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli, of Lake Havasu, said of his legislation, which has bipartisan support from Yuma Sen. Lisa Otondo, a Democrat.
In his office at the state Capitol, Borrelli exhibited products made out of hemp that he picked up at a high-end natural grocer — rope, hemp seeds, lotion and soap.
“Why are we not doing this?” he asked. “This is another product that our farmers could use, make money on and stimulate the market. We’re missing out on a multibillion-dollar industry.”
The trade group Vote Hemp estimates the value of hemp products sold in the U.S. at $600 million.
Since a provision in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill signed into law by President Barack Obama defined hemp as different from marijuana, at least 30 states have passed industrial-hemp legislation. The states have established commercial programs, research or pilot programs and studies that were authorized, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Almost 10,000 acres of hemp were grown in 15 states last year, according to Vote Hemp.
In a desert state like Arizona — where agriculture uses the biggest share of water — hemp needs less water than cotton, grows quicker, generates higher outputs and uses less fertilizer, say the lawmakers, who are pitching the idea to farmers, irrigation district board members and agricultural associations.
Otondo said the legislation has gotten an excellent reception from irrigation district board members and farmers, notably in light of the water crisis. Her hope would be to set a hemp industry which will bring processing plants to the state and create more jobs.
“We could have processing plants for seeds, for textiles, processing plants to extract the oils,” she said. “We’re actually in a great position to get in on the ground floor.”
However an earlier effort to legalize hemp farming failed in 2014, and the legislation of this year has its critics.
Others are leery of subjecting themselves to more regulations, while some farmers may see possibility in growing hemp crops.
“You don’t want somebody else breathing down your back, watching every move you make,” said Paco Ollerton, a Pinal County cotton, wheat and alfalfa farmer who’s the president of the Arizona Cotton Grower’s Association.
And also the stigma of marijuana could keep them away.
“I think there’s fear in the public that it’s very similar to cannabis,” he said. “From a grower’s point of view, I think my concern is just that we don’t know enough about it.”
The legislation could also face resistance from lawmakers who perceive hemp as equal to marijuana. This week, Otondo, who had a representative from Vote Hemp speak to Democrats about the bill, said she’s attempting to educate lawmakers about the difference.
“This has nothing to do with recreational or medical marijuana,” she said.
Western Growers, which represents regional and local farmers in Arizona, California, and Colorado, does not have any position on the bill.