Despite the potential risks, Mississippi farmers want the chance to grow hemp as a cash crop.
Freddie Rowell is a farmer from Pelahatchie and grows soybean, wheat, and corn. He’s been talking with people in some of the 47 states that have legalized hemp and is interested in the possibilities.
“It’s being done in other states and it can be done here,” Rowell said. “You’ll see cultivation almost immediately, just on a small scale. Farmers are resilient. They’re going to try. They’re risk takers anyway. They’ll make a go of it.”
Neal Smith, who owns Serene Fox Farm in the small Delta community of Shaw, says he’s very interested in trying his hand growing hemp. Smith primarily grows soybeans and corn.
“This is of interest because we need another crop we can rotate as we try to maintain and enhance the quality of the soil,” Smith said.
There are some roadblocks that will likely keep them on the sidelines for at least the next growing season and possibly longer.
The Hemp Cultivation Task Force will issue its recommendations to the legislature in December. The legislature will then have to pass a law exempting industrial hemp and hemp-derived products from the list of controlled substances in state law.
Then the state would have to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and receive approval.
“My crystal ball doesn’t work on politicians at all,” Smith said. “If the legislature was to pass anything, it’d be three years before anything of a substantial nature happens.”
As for large-scale hemp farming, it could be years before the crop becomes part of the state’s economy even if the legislature legalizes its cultivation and the USDA signs off on a cultivation plan by the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
“A farmer is going to grow what’s most profitable and right now there are so many things that are unknown,” Rowell said. “You’re seeing hemp grown in Colorado, Kentucky and Tennessee. These are areas with climates totally different than Mississippi.
“There are too many unknowns for a farmer to farm it for the fiber, for bedding material, for the seed. There’s too much risk for a farmer to jump into this now.”
Some of those unknowns include whether Mississippi’s climate and soil types are suitable for large-scale hemp cultivation. The varieties being grow in test programs nationwide hail from Canada and Europe and there haven’t been any trials in Mississippi’s climate.
There also isn’t a supply chain to allow farmers to get the crop to market and there are no pesticides or herbicides that are approved by the USDA for hemp.
Hemp cultivation would be along four lines: industrial, grain, fiber, and oil production.
Estimates by Randy Little at the Department of Agriculture Economics at Mississippi State University would put hemp fiber or hemp grain cultivation nearly on par with corn grown in the northeast part of the state and higher than soybeans grown in the Delta.
Growing a crop for both purposes would be nearly on par on with revenue on Delta corn. Hemp wouldn’t approach the massive revenue generated by cotton grown in either the northeast part of the state or the Delta.