A Colorado carpenter takes a chance on hemp

Can an agrarian insurrection revitalize this High Plains town?

  • Ryan Loflin works in his hemp field near Springfield, Colorado, where this fall, he and a group of volunteers from around the country harvested the nation's first major yield of the marijuana-like crop in 55 years.

    Matthew Staver
 

This October, Ryan Loflin did what nobody in the United States has done in 55 years: He publicly harvested a crop of hemp. He deliberately ignored long-standing federal policy and bucked the advice of farm organizations, and his project was shunned by the state university set up to assist farmers.

The lanky, soft-spoken Loflin carried out this act of agrarian insurrection on 60 acres of his father's farm near Springfield, Colo., a town of 1,500 about 30 minutes from both Oklahoma and Kansas, in the heart of the Dust Bowl. Here, the scant trees lean away from the constant hard winds. A single wind turbine stands in the distance. There would be more, Loflin says, if there were power lines. Springfield clearly needs an economic boost. "Just look at Main Street," Loflin says: One steakhouse, four motels and many boarded-up storefronts. Could hemp be the answer?

It is, according to proponents, the answer for almost everything. Hemp can be used in products from rope to auto parts to plastics, shampoo to vitamin supplements. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written on paper made from its long fibers; our first three presidents – Washington, Adams and Jefferson – were hemp farmers. And the plant requires half or less the water that corn does, Loflin points out, making it better suited for the arid High Plains.

Standing in his field of chest-high hemp back in August, his reddish-blonde hair poking from under a sweat-stained Dragon Sheet Metal hat, Loflin explained that he inherited an entrepreneurial streak from his grandfather, who owned a string of Gibson's discount stores. Hemp could revitalize eastern Colorado's hardscrabble farm towns, he argued, which, like most in the Great Plains, have seen better days.

An exodus has been occurring for decades. After graduating high school in 1991, Loflin himself moved to Colorado's mountain resorts, first Breckenridge and then Crested Butte, where he now reclaims old barnwood for use in new homes. But when Colorado voters in 2012 legalized recreational marijuana – and, almost as an afterthought, the growing of hemp – he returned to his farming roots.

The story of hemp is inexorably linked with marijuana. They are both varieties of Cannabis sativa and have the same spiky leaves. But marijuana commonly contains between 3 and 30 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the drug's psychoactive agent. As defined by Colorado's pending regulations, hemp can contain no more than 0.3 percent, enough to give you a headache, perhaps, but not a high.

The plant is essentially collateral damage in the nation's long war on drugs. In 1937, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act after Bureau of Narcotics head Henry J. Anslinger warned that "marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death." In defining "marihuana," however, that law exempted the mature stalks of the plant, fiber, oil or cake made from the seeds, and sterilized seeds. During World War II, the federal government actively encouraged farmers to grow hemp for ropes.

The 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act contained the same definition of marijuana, but also made hemp a Schedule I controlled substance, illegal to grow without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has declined to award them.

Federal policy was further muddled in August, when U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole notified federal prosecutors that blocking landmark marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington would not be a priority. However, the Justice Department had previously reneged on promises that it would look the other way on medical marijuana in California and Montana.

Given this murky legal landscape, Colorado State University, the state's land-grant school, has avoided hemp the way somebody might cross a street to avoid an aggressive panhandler. Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, would give it and other universities cover for research and protect federal research grants. Despite support from libertarian conservatives, the bill has languished. Similarly, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union warned its members against planting this year and risking the loss of federal crop insurance.

Just how much hemp will mean for rural incomes is open to debate; the U.S. market – which may amount to some $500 million – is currently supplied by imports. "Nobody is going to suddenly get rich and retire by growing hemp," says Mick McAllister, director of communications for the Farmers Union.

Loflin has squirreled away seeds from October's harvest for an even larger planting next year and hopes to at least partially fill orders from Whole Foods and Dr. Bronner's, which makes natural soap. Other farmers in Springfield, including his two cousins, also may plant next year. Last May, as Loflin prepared to sow, he said he suspected that federal drug agents had other things to think about than his farm. So far, his theory has held up.

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