Feral hemp
Ismail Dweikat, an agronomy professor and hemp researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, holds a feral hemp plant in Dead Man’s Run on East Campus. Due to changes in licensing rules for growers, Dweikat’s hemp research on campus has been stalled. Photo by Mark Champion
IMG 4935 300x200 - After legalization, hemp’s roots in Nebraska take hold
Hemp seeds rest in a bowl on Ismail Dweikat’s desk on East Campus. Photo by Mark Champion

In 2019, the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act was passed, which legalized the production and sale of hemp, a cousin of the marijuana plant. Now, some Nebraskan farmers are planting the newly legalized crop, while some Nebraska state senators are working to make marijuana a legal cash crop as well.

The Nebraska Hemp Farming Act was introduced in 2018, but the plant’s history extends far beyond that. 

In the early 1940s, farmers grew hemp at the behest of the United States government. “Hemp for Victory” campaigns occurred during the second World War, and farmers obliged. 

After Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941 and the United States lost its ability to gather hemp there, American farmers grew hemp for military supplies such as rope and cloth and for other industries in the United States. Farmers could apply for, and almost always received a tax stamp which read Producer of Marihuana to bypass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and supply war-time production with raw material.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1942 film, also titled “Hemp for Victory,” hemp is a crop that grows in areas where corn grows. According to Ismail Dweikat, an agronomy professor and hemp researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, there were over 400,000 acres of hemp grown in Iowa, Nebraska and Kentucky in 1942. When the war ended in 1945, the government did not need hemp anymore and shut down hemp production again. Dweikat said the feral hemp found all over eastern Nebraska is left over from those farms in the 1940s.

The United States government denied the film’s existence for decades until it was rediscovered in 1989. 

Hemp has traditionally been used for items such as rope and textiles, but the use of the crop has expanded greatly. Since 2018, Nebraskans have been using hemp to make clothing, construction materials, biofuels and organic body care supplies. 

After a good push, hemp takes a swing

Andrew Bish, chief operating officer of Bish Enterprises and chief executive officer of Hemp Harvest Works in Giltner, Nebraska, was working in traditional agriculture in 2015, manufacturing combine parts and other harvest equipment. A customer who was contracted to harvest a 200-acre hemp growing operation in Colorado reached out to Bish Enterprises hoping to try some of their equipment.

The incident led Bish to the field of hemp growing and eventually inspired him to draft parts of the bill which eventually legalized the plant in his home state of Nebraska. 

“A lot of my testing was done out of state. That meant that when we came back, oftentimes we had material that was illegal in the state of Nebraska. It kind of put me in a very precarious position,” Bish said. “That was one of the motivating factors.”

Bish comes from a family of farmers, and he said his second motivation was to provide rotational crop opportunities to farmers, which creates healthier soil.

With the help of his brother and some friends from Kentucky, Bish contributed some of the language for a legalization bill that was introduced in 2018. The bill failed to advance.

Bish said he and the others working to legalize hemp in Nebraska ran into obstacles from those who thought the bill would lead to further loosening of marijuana use laws. He said Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts stood in their way more than anyone else.

“Mr. Ricketts is not a big fan of hemp. He made our lives very, very difficult,” Bish said.

However, Bish said most opposition he encountered was unfounded or based in misconceptions.

“The general opposition that was occurring at the time throughout the country when you talked about being this perception that you’re trying to legalize recreational marijuana,” Bish said. “And then the misconception that somehow if you do legalize recreational or medical marijuana, somehow that’s going to have a negative impact.”

Jake Friend, a North Platte farmer, said that while he doesn’t grow hemp, he does use it for medicinal purposes.

“I do it for chronic pain from my shoulder surgery,” Friend said. “It hasn’t really affected my life. I haven’t considered growing hemp, but I know a couple people back home have.”

In 2019, Bish and company came to the Capitol with a different game plan and a coalition of people throughout the state in order to pass the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act, which Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced. The bill adopted the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act and legalized licensed production of the plant in Nebraska. 

“We had enough information ultimately that made it easy for senators to make decisions on passing the bill,” Bish said.

As a result, 2019 was the first year farmers could apply for growing licenses. However, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture only awarded 10 licenses based on a lottery system. Bish said more than 90 farmers applied, and the majority of them were not approved.

“That really made it difficult for Nebraska to start off effectively,” Bish said.

To receive a license, farmers have to undergo background checks and register fingerprints with the FBI and pay $800 for each cultivation site. The state also tests farmers’ crops to ensure they are staying below the legal limit of 0.3% THC content, the psychoactive component which differentiates hemp from its illegal sibling marijuana. In Colorado, where marijuana production is legal, plants can reach up to 32% THC, according to Dweikat.

This licensing process poses issues for hemp researchers like Dweikat, who previously was working to create a stable hemp biofuel to power engines. 

IMG 4933 scaled - After legalization, hemp’s roots in Nebraska take hold
University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomy professor Ismail Dweikat is researching hemp. “We are growing hemp to benefit the farmers in the state,” Dweikat said. “We’re not making money out of it. And we’re not getting any funding from the state or the government here, or the university.” Photo by Mark Champion

The USDA’s 2014 Pilot Program for hemp said universities and USDA offices could grow hemp to conduct research. When Dweikat started his research in 2016, he didn’t need to pay for licenses or test his plants for THC content.

When it passed in 2018, the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act put researchers in the same category as farmers, and now Dweikat must be licensed and pay $800 for each location he wants to grow hemp. Even if he uses multiple sites on UNL’s research farmland in Mead, Dweikat said he would have to pay for each site. Since he doesn’t sell his plants nor does he receive funding for hemp research, he can’t afford to pay this, and his research output has decreased about 95%. 

Before 2018, Dweikat was growing, researching and testing hemp from multiple locations and greenhouses, but now he has no hemp plants, only a bowl of seeds on his desk.

“We are growing hemp to benefit the farmers in the state,” Dweikat said. “We’re not making money out of it. And we’re not getting any funding from the state or the government here, or the university.”

Dweikat said the THC limit of 0.3% also complicates his research. Before 2018, his plants were not subject to such stringent testing. 

“I cannot destroy all my crop, so it’s better not to even grow it,” Dweikat said.

According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s list of licensed hemp cultivators, there are 56 total licensees for 2021. Despite a sizable list of growers, Bish said the plant novelty means demand is low, and farmers are facing a shortage of buyers. 

“Quite frankly, there’s just no place for Nebraska producers to take their crop, whether it be CBD, grain or fiber,” Bish said. “At this point, it’s very, very difficult.”

Bish said this was the largest problem limiting hemp’s growth. Although CBD outlets are beginning to sell around the state and companies like Seward’s Hemp3D are beginning to experiment with new hemp-based products, there aren’t enough options at the moment to motivate many farmers to adopt a hemp growing operation.

“Farmers are ready to plant this crop if they have an outlet to sell it to,” Bish said. “I don’t see any opposition from farmers.”

The future of hemp in Nebraska 

Hemp has been adopted by farmers young and old in the few years it has been legal to grow despite these obstacles.

“I’ve sold hemp seeds to 75-year-old men and 22-year-old men. It’s really across the board,” Bish said. “I do think that there’s definitely generally more interest amongst the younger crowd, but there’s a lot of the older generation that adopted this crop in different parts of the country.”

Nebraska State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln meets with hemp farmers in Nebraska regularly to discuss the successes and failures of the crop. She said interest in growing hemp is increasing among younger farmers, which paints a good picture for the plant’s future in the state.

“There are certain industries, including agriculture, where it seems like there aren’t a lot of young people entering into that space,” Wishart said. “But when I meet with the hemp association, it’s a lot of young people. That holds true for across the rest of the country with overall cannabis farming. It’s definitely something that interests younger people to get back into that industry.”

According to Wishart, Nebraska is still a long way off from being a hemp-friendly state. Some farmers of the crop in Nebraska like Rulo’s Justin and Hilari Courtney, have had to burn their entire yield because it tested too high for THC. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture defines hemp as having 0.3% THC or less. 

Wishart said some other states have been much more business-friendly in terms of offering solutions for grown hemp that is too high in THC. She said hemp high in THC can still be used for producing fiber. Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, can also be derived from hemp regardless of THC content.

Steven Mah, a freelance writer from Lincoln, said that he sees a lot of pros and cons to hemp usage.

“For me personally, it’s one of those things where you’ve got to find the greater good for everybody,” Mah said. “If there’s a proven medical use that would be able to help a lot of people, then we should definitely look into it more.”

Some Nebraska senators are pushing for legalization of both plants.

Wishart and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln have been leading the charge on marijuana legalization in Nebraska. During this legislative session, Wishart’s priority legislation (LB474) would legalize the substance for medicinal use. The two state senators are also pushing for a statewide vote in 2022 that would determine the legality of both the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana. 

Companies like CBD Remedies in Lincoln are pursuing the medicinal effects of hemp by partnering with doctors like Andrea Holmes and Amanda McKinney from Doane University. The two work together to educate customers and even provide private consultations similar to a doctor’s office visit.

The question of whether or not to legalize medicinal use of marijuana almost made it onto Nebraska voters’ ballots in 2020, after activists gathered enough signatures on their petition to include the measure. However, it was ultimately tossed out by the Nebraska Supreme Court after a legal challenge argued the proposal violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives, which both Wishart and Morfeld argued against before the Court. 

Morfeld said marijuana farming could build off the groundwork hemp farming has already laid.

“I think [marijuana] is a huge cash crop that has a lot of opportunity in a state that quite frankly hasn’t provided a ton of new opportunities for rural Nebraskans,” Morfeld said. “There’s a huge underground market that can be made above ground.”

According to Morfeld, marijuana criminalization has ignored the potential tax revenues and business opportunities cannabis farming could provide. 

“You really have to be careful about the things you criminalize, because when you criminalize something it has an incredible impact on peoples’ lives, on our economy and on our society,” Morfeld said. “I think this is one of those things where people were afraid of something and they criminalized it before they really knew or cared to know about the actual impact of it.”