By Brian Bahouth

Reno – Lynn Hettrick is administrator of the Nevada Department of Agriculture’s plant industry division, and earlier in the legislative session he gave a presentation on hemp to the Nevada Senate Judiciary committee.

“On an annual basis, one acre of  hemp will produce as much fiber as two to three acres of cotton,” Hettrick told committee members.  “Hemp fiber is stronger, softer than cotton, lasts twice as long as cotton, and will not mildew.  Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires more water than hemp.  Hemp is frost tolerant, requires moderate water and can be grown in all 50 states.  Cotton requires large quantities of pesticides and herbicides.  Fifty percent of the world’s pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of cotton worldwide … 50 percent of the world’s pesticides,” Hettrick said with emphasis.

And hemp is an annual plant with a legendary and growing number of profitable uses from paper to plastics to medicinal cannabidiol or CBD oil.  Section 7606 of the U.S. Agricultural Act of 2014 or “farm bill” as it is known authorizes institutions of higher education or state departments of agriculture in states that have legalized hemp cultivation to conduct research and test programs, and in 2015, the Nevada Legislature legalized the cultivation of hemp for research purposes.  Lynn Hettrick took time recently to answer a few questions about hemp during a break in a meeting at the Nevada State Capital.

“We had 9 trials of 260 plus acres last year in hemp.  We anticipate over 20 trials this year and several hundred more acres added to it,” Hettrick said.

Perhaps the largest single obstacle to developing industrial scale hemp cultivation in Nevada is the availability of seed.  In a taxonomic sense, hemp and marijuana are both species of cannabis, but hemp has no value as a recreational drug and is by definition low in psychoactive tetrahydrocannabidiol or THC, yet marijuana and hemp are both subject to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and thus, hemp has been an abandoned U.S. crop for decades, now devoid of a viable domestic seed stock.  Today, almost all hemp seed has to be imported under the scrutiny of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and according to Lynn Hettrick, suitable hemp seed is rare and expensive.

“I just had yesterday the young man who is charge of our hemp program bring in to me a little box, six inches tall, four by four otherwise, and pulled out a plastic baggy with a package of hemp seed in it.  It was about an inch and a half in diameter and six inches long, and he said, ‘we just imported this special variety from Italy.  It’s $12,000 worth of seed.’   So yeah, we are very very interested in developing a certified hemp seed program for Nevada,” Hettrick said.

When giving testimony to the Senate Judiciary committee a few weeks ago, Lynn Hettrick described a fledgling effort to establish a certified hemp seed stock in Nevada.

“The NDA (Nevada Department of Agriculture) is creating a certified seed program, so Nevada growers can raise their own hemp seed,” Hettrick told lawmakers.  “We’re also using our green house to grow and confirm low THC varieties.  Before hemp can be harvested under the existing federal law it has to be tested, and it must test at must test at less than .3 percent THC, so we are confirming varieties that will do that.  As our research trials that are being completed around the state are done, we will be publishing the research findings on our website.  We’re excited about the potential for industrial hemp and that Nevada is at the forefront of the hemp industry in the west.”

Even though hemp is low in THC, it is rich in another useful and coveted cannabinoid, cannabidiol or CBD, which has many therapeutic benefits from treatment of seizures, diabetes, fibromyalgia, crones disease and general pain relief, and for Nevada farmers, potential profit .

“CBD Oil is very valuable.  In today’s market it brings $20,000 to $40,000 dollars a kilo, that’s $500 to a $1,000 an ounce,” Hettrick told members of Senate Judiciary.  “With the potential to generate significant profits, CBD oil is the primary motivation for the expanding interest in growing hemp today.”

But industrial cultivation of hemp is as idiosyncratic and potentially confounding as any crop, and Hettrick said Nevada’s pioneering hemp farmers and the state have endured some learning opportunities.

“We had some issues with some of the seed that was not a problem with the seed itself, but the fact that the size and that it was very fragile,” Hettrick said.  “And when they tried to put it through a planter, it fractured some of the seed and we didn’t get very good crops in some places.  Others did very very well, so we’ve learned some lessons and anticipate the ranching and farming community is going to hear this and say, ’oh, ok, this is how you plant it and these are the varieties that work.’  So we’re looking for expansion.”

And according to Hettrick, there is interest in a high value crop well suited for Nevada’s environment.

“The farmers are very up on this.  They get it.  We’ve had huge interest from the farming community.  Not everybody jumped into it the first time, but we’ve had big interest from multiple entities.”

Along with the legal cultivation of hemp there are opportunities for hemp processors, but as of now, Nevada needs to expand its basic hemp infrastructure.

“The biggest problem we have right now is facilities to process it.  And that’s being worked on and I think that there will be multiple facilities within the state within the year,” Mr. Hettrick said.

Another hurdle for hemp farmers and processors in Nevada is that Nevada hemp CBD products are not currently authorized for sale in Nevada’s growing number of medical marijuana dispensaries.  Lynn Hettrick communicated this and other needs to lawmakers when he testified before the Senate Judiciary committee, and Senate Bill 396 was born, which would further enable the state’s seed stock program and open Nevada medical marijuana dispensaries to Nevada hemp CBD products.

A couple dozen states have now made a legal distinction between hemp and marijuana, and some 35 states have passed legislation in support of hemp cultivation.  Lynn Hettrick is optimistic hemp can add to Nevada’s agricultural legacy.

“Much like we grow some of the finest alfalfa, and the alfalfa seed is very treasured across the country because of the alfalfa we grow.  I think we’re going to grow some very fine hemp as well.  And it’s a boon because of the water usage and the low pesticide.  It’s a good thing for our environment and our farmers, and we believe it’s going to be an economic boon.”


Image credit: Marc Fuya Creative Commons license