A low-angle shot of a John Deere tractor cuts down a section of a hemp field, with razed stumps in the foreground and untouched stalks in the background.
A tractor mows down hemp stalks at a Bish Enterprises field in Alliance, Nebraska. A bill is being debated in the Nebraska Legislature to lessen burdens on hemp producers in the state. Photo courtesy of Jacob Bish

A new legislative bill is aiming to reduce the barriers to hemp production and research – and jumpstart Nebraska’s slumping hemp industry in the process.

LB263, introduced by the Legislature’s Agricultural Committee on Jan. 10, would bring the state’s most-recent hemp law, known as the 2018 Hemp Farming Act, up to date with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s January 2021 ruling on the matter. The bill would increase the THC threshold for hemp harvests to allow producers more margin-of-error in what harvests they can keep, double the harvesting window from 15 days to 30 and allow state regulators greater flexibility in testing for and disposing of non-compliant hemp harvests. 

The bill could help expand an industry that only covers 260 acres of land across the state as of 2021 and saw the number of producers drop from 56 to 22 in the two-year span since. Proponents argue that the bill would clear the way for farmers to break into the untapped market for a product they say has a wide range of applications.

“Implementing some of these changes that lower the burdens and entry cost of producers into this market will allow Nebraska to flourish in the hemp economy,” said Jacob Bish, a Giltner-based hemp grower who spoke in favor of the bill at a Feb. 21 hearing.

He was joined by seven others — including a local pharmacist and the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union — in making arguments in favor of the bill. No one spoke against the bill.

Of the nine lawmakers present at the hearing, some, including Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, expressed curiosity about the crop and its potential applications. Others, such as Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln, advocated for it, enumerating its many potential applications.

raybould 200x300 - State lawmakers deliberate bill that would loosen restrictions on hemp production
Nebraska Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communications.

“Hemp is used in so many products, from shampoos to hand lotions … clothing and other soaps, you name it, it can be used in a tremendous amount of products which every grocery store sells,” Raybould said.

The versatility of the crop was a point of emphasis for many proponents. Andrew Bish of Giltner, brother of Jacob and chief operating officer of Bish Enterprises, an agricultural equipment and R&D company, made the case to allow for hemp-derived feed for “non-consumption” animals. He said it would provide numerous health benefits for the animals and noted that hemp food products are already legal for human consumption.

He also said that hemp fiber-infused concrete can provide 15% more strength than regular concrete at half the weight.

“The product works within the existing infrastructure, so that’s a very exciting advent and should give Nebraska farmers some additional opportunities,” he said.

Bill Hawkins, another proponent and a self-proclaimed organic farmer and herbalist, showed up in a hemp-woven suit to make his case for the product’s versatility. He was also one of a handful of supporters who put a spotlight on Nebraska’s legal marijuana derivatives industry, which he said sprang off from the hemp industry after the 2018 Farm Bill’s passage.

He argued those products should be a greater concern to the state, which have an average THC potency on par with actual marijuana.

“We have a proliferation of stores selling low-potency weed right now,” Hawkins said, adding that he sees many hemp-derived THC products, like THCO and THCP, being created with “spray-on additives” as a major issue.

Hawkins called for more stringent transparency regulations surrounding such products by subjecting them to the Nebraska Pure Food Act, a 1901 bill that established standards for food purity, labeling and inspection.

Other barriers to entry for hemp growing in the state are much more concrete. According to Trevor Johnson, the hemp program manager for the state Department of Agriculture who spoke at the hearing in a neutral capacity, prospective growers must submit a $150 application fee in addition to $600 per cultivation site, as well as $300 per-inspection and $60 per-sample fees. The bill would allow for changes to be made to such fees, although no strict provisions surrounding them are included.

Jeanne Greisen, a Lincoln pharmacist who sells hemp products at her store, said her own crop of hemp that she just began growing last year is usually subject to five tests “from seed to shelf,” which she described as a steep learning curve. 

“Do we charge corn and bean farmers $1,000 just to put their crop in the ground? I don’t think so,” Greisen said.

She wasn’t alone. John Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union since 1989, said the bill has the union’s full support.

“We are a long supporter of trying to get this additional new crop up and running in profitable fashion,” Hansen said, adding that they especially support the bill’s alignment with federal standards. “We look at the intent of this bill … and we see absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t.”