WILLMAR - Industrial hemp, which will become legal now that the new federal farm bill has been signed, is the new buzzword in agricultural and processing sectors and a local group is looking for ways to capture that market in west central Minnesota.
"I think it'll be moving pretty fast," said Dan Tepfer, chairman of the Ag and Renewable Energy Committee that is part of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
"It's set to boom," said Connie Schmoll, small business development director with the EDC, during the committee's meeting Thursday.
Although the committee has been exploring industrial hemp as an agricultural economic initiative for the last year and a half, Schmoll wondered if they "might be behind the eightball" now.
Removing industrial hemp from the list of federally controlled substances means large companies would likely get into the game, she said, including producing a high-profit margin medicinal oil called cannabidiol, often referred to as CBD oil.
But with several farmers in the region already growing industrial hemp under the state's tightly regulated pilot program - and the current lack of a local market, equipment and facilities to process things like hemp fiber, hemp seeds and oil - the group decided to keep exploring options.
The committee will gather more information about growing, processing and marketing industrial hemp and look for potential ways to bring that information to farmers and potential investors, like hosting a trade show or conference.
An informational meeting on industrial hemp conducted by the committee last month attracted a larger-than-expected crowd.
At that event the committee learned that a local farmer who grew industrial hemp had to drive all the the way to Wisconsin to deliver his seed. The closest place to process hemp fiber is in Nebraska.
"Farmers don't want to do that, or can't afford to do that," said committee member Larry Konsterlie. "If we want that industry to grow locally, that's the thing that should be looked at."
Konsterlie said the committee could learn something from Canada, where industrial hemp has been grown and processed for 20 years.
He said perhaps a co-op for industrial hemp could be developed, similar to the sugar beet cooperatives, to ensure that special equipment and a ready market is available.
Tepfer said given the current downturn in the ag economy, it would be a "good time to introduce potential markets."
The committee agreed to gather additional information from a variety of venues, including the University of Minnesota which is conducting an industrial hemp study, as well as Canada and Colorado where industrial hemp has been marketed for years.
The issue will be addressed again at the committee's meeting in January.