Now that it's legal in Washington state, a handful of farmers and the Colville tribe have submitted applications to grow industrial hemp. On Tuesday, Moses Lake will be the scene of a "first planting" demonstration of the non-drug cousin of marijuana.
In the inaugural growing season, seven entities have applied to the Washington State Department of Agriculture to grow and process industrial hemp or to be seed distributors. The agency has approved three licenses so far, with the rest under review.
Seattle-based hemp industry consultant Joy Beckerman of Hemp Ace International foresees the first legal crop in the state in almost 90 years going to fiber and oilseed markets.
"What we're probably going to see in the beginning—like Canada—is seed processing because that infrastructure exists,” Beckerman said. “Of course, it needs to grow."
Consumer products could include hemp oil, hemp protein powder, hemp flour and dietary fiber.
The Washington Legislature voted nearly unanimously last year to legalize hemp under state oversight. Oregon and some other states such as Colorado and Kentucky have a head start of several years, but have mostly seen tepid interest among farmers to try the new crop.
Beckerman said there is a sort of chicken-and-egg predicament confronting the reintroduction of industrial hemp.
"Trying to get investors interested in investing in infrastructure for which there is no crop, this is a challenging thing," Beckerman said in an interview. "We're putting one foot in front of the other here and it is the farmers who are going to be the heroes here."
The Oregon Legislature first approved hemp farming in 2009, but it took until 2015 for the state to grant the first grower and handler permits.
Oregon’s the nascent industrial hemp industry quickly came into conflict with marijuana growers. The related plant species can cross-pollinate if grown near each other, which can make the resulting crops unmarketable. In 2016, the Oregon Legislature loosened its strict hemp growing rules so that farmers could start plants in greenhouses or grow rooms to reduce the risk of cross pollination.
In Washington state, the new rules promulgated by the state Department of Agriculture set a minimum distance of four miles between a hemp field and the nearest licensed indoor or outdoor marijuana grow operation.