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South Dakota Advocates Work to Legalize Hemp
South Dakota Ag Connection - 10/08/2019

Monday was South Dakota Hemp Day, and supporters of legalizing industrial hemp in the state held an event in Pierre.

State Senate majority leader Lee Qualm was on hand, as was South Dakota Farmers Union president Doug Sombke.

Sombke compared hemp to the rise of ethanol in an interview before the event.

"Back in the ethanol industry days, I remember Governor Janklow didn't think too much of that. He didn't understand what the benefits would be for the countryside, but by God, once he did he latched onto that with both hands," Sombke said. "I can't imagine where we'd be today if we hadn't developed that several years ago."

South Dakota is one of three states, along with Idaho and Mississippi, that have not legalized hemp despite the latest farm bill granting it legal status at the federal level. Last year the state Legislature sent House Bill 1191, legalizing the growth, production, and processing of industrial hemp and its products in the state, to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk, where she vetoed it. The House overrode the veto with the required two-thirds vote; voting 55 for and 11 against. The Senate, however, failed in reaching its two-thirds required vote, getting only 20 yeas to 13 nays.

Citizens and members of various organizations and companies gathered at South Dakota Hemp Day to hear about the uses and status of the product in one of the few states where the product is illegal despite legalization at the federal level through the 2018 Farm Bill.

Randy Stratton, with the company Securcrop and one of the organizers of the event, said he hoped to see progress on the issue during the next legislative session.

"The idea for the (South Dakota Hemp Day) is to coincide with what the Legislature is working on, which is putting together some guidelines in conjunction with United States Department of Agriculture regulations that are coming and incorporating some of those into legislation that will be introduced in January," Stratton said.

Incidentally, the South Dakota Legislature's Industrial Hemp Interim Study Committee also met Monday. Among the people on the agenda were the Hemp Program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the chief of staff for the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Public testimony was taken in the late afternoon.

Qualm, the chairman of the Industrial Hemp Study Committee, said he was disappointed when Noem vetoed a hemp legalization bill last year, but South Dakota can now take some time to learn from what other states have done.

"We can learn a lot about it from the states that are producing hemp; we don't have to reinvent the wheel," Qualm said.

Rep. Oren Lesmeister, lead sponsor of the legislation that would allow hemp growing in South Dakota, said licensing and federal background checks would be required to grow the product. He also said it is important to take the proper time to get the legislation drafted correctly.

"We're taking our time on it. We want to write one bill this time and not add 35 amendments to it. From when we started down this road four or five years ago, we've come a long way. Not just with the bill but with the education," Lesmeister said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release details of a new regulatory framework soon so farmers can have the opportunity to grow hemp in the 2020 growing season.

Sombke see the cautious approach to accepting industrial hemp as much the same as the approach taken to two agriculture industries that are now widely accepted in South Dakota.

"This is a good thing for South Dakota processors, for South Dakota as a whole. Right now we have people outside South Dakota borders developing their niche in this market," Sombke said.

Stratton would like to see change at the next legislative session.

"It's a great rotational crop, and people need to understand the value of the economic side. We're not saying it's going to come and rescue every farmer; that's foolish talk. We're saying that they need other specialty crops," Stratton said. "We need to be looking at ways to diversify our agricultural economy. That's what we're hoping for."

Hemp is not marijuana, he said, and it is required to have a concentration of 0.03 percent or less of THC, the active intoxicant in marijuana. Testing products to distinguish between hemp and marijuana have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, he said, which helps pave the way for being able to promote hemp without embracing marijuana.

The market for the plant is huge, both in the United States and other countries, Stratton said.

Stratton said the Legislature has to hammer out guidelines for testing the material and its transportation through the state. Those are issues other states have figured out, and he feels South Dakota can do so with leadership at the top level, he said.

"So, we have to be prepared as a state for that, and that falls on our administration to get that sorted out," Stratton said. "The Legislature will do their work in January and have their discussions, and they're having a debate today about what other states are doing. How are they handling law enforcement, how are they handling transportation issues, how are they going to do the testing? There are answers out there for all those questions," Stratton said.

Reid Vander Veen, with Hemp Processing Solutions in Harrisburg, a company that makes hemp processing machinery, said South Dakota is missing out on an important new opportunity. It's also hindering his company's ability to remain an innovative leader in the industry, with some of this work now being done in Colorado, where hemp is legal.

"We're selling equipment all over the United States. Right now we can sell to 47 states, but South Dakota is not one of them. We could sell it, but nobody would have any use for it. We're not even able to test our equipment, frankly, as you can't have possession (of hemp) on site," Vander Veen said.

The benefits of adding another cover crop that South Dakota farmers could utilize seems obvious, he said.

"You had a perfect storm in 2019 for farmers. You had a really wet spring in a lot of areas. You have the largest number of prevent plant acres in any state in the country. One of the many benefits to (hemp) is the very rapid growing season, and you can use it as a cover crop or a primary crop; you can get that stuff in the ground pretty late and still see plants come to maturity and have a successful harvest even with a wet spring," Vander Veen said.

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