Hemp in Idaho

Hemp in Idaho

David Sparks Ph.D.
David Sparks Ph.D.
Idaho farmers are on track to plant almost twice as many hemp acres as they did last year.

Gem State farmers planted 1,273 acres of hemp in 2023, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. That was up from 459 acres in 2022, the first year that Idaho allowed farmers to grow the regulated crop.

As of May 31, the ISDA has approved licenses to grow 2,440 acres of hemp in the state.

Idaho became the last state in the nation to adopt a hemp program, but it appears at least some Gem State growers are starting to figure out the agronomics of growing the crop here.

Most of Idaho’s hemp acres are being grown in southcentral Idaho but hemp is being grown throughout the state.

While a few Idaho growers tried growing hemp for the CBD market in 2022, only one did that in 2023 and no one is growing it for CBD this year.

Of all the hemp acres grown in Idaho in 2022, roughly 44 acres, or around 9.5 percent of all acres, had to be destroyed because they exceeded the legal threshold for THC. All of those acres were planted to CBD hemp varieties. No Idaho hemp acres were destroyed in 2023.

“Fiber varieties seem to grow very well here,” said Greg Blahato, who manages the ISDA’s hemp program. “The fiber varieties have taken off, and that’s what seems to grow very well here.”

Apparently, hemp grows well in Idaho’s climate. But harvesting it has proven to be a challenge growers are still trying to perfect.

“From the regulatory side, we didn’t see any issues with the crop last year,” said Casey Monn, ISDA’s hemp bureau chief. “Some folks were able to grow and harvest it very, very well and there were some folks that seemed to struggle with growing and harvesting it.”

He said Idaho hemp growers did have a lot of issues with the crop not drying enough and being too green or wet during harvest time.

Idaho became the last state in the nation to legalize the production and processing of industrial hemp. The bill passed in the IdahoSenate by a vote of 30-5 and in the House by a vote of 44-26. Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 126 into law in April 2021. 

The legislation is a narrow bill and only allows for people to grow and process industrial hemp if they obtain a license from the ISDA. People can also transport it on behalf of someone with a license.

Industrial hemp, by federal law, must not exceed 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive compound that gets a user of marijuana high. According to experts, it is impossible to get high from industrial hemp.

Idaho’s hemp program, as required by federal law, has safeguards to ensure hemp grown in the state does not exceed that 0.3 percent THC threshold.

Industrial hemp products have always been sold legally in the United States but not until the 2018 farm bill was passed was it legal to grow and process hemp commercially in the U.S.

The hemp products sold in the U.S. previously came from other countries.

According to Monn, Idaho has the strictest hemp program in the United States. Hemp is regulated in Idaho by the lot, not by the grower.

Every planted hemp lot has to be inspected at least once. If someone harvests all their hemp from a lot at once, there is one inspection. If there are several harvests of one plot, there will need to be several inspections.

If there is a compliance issue, a grower can opt to try remediation efforts and ISDA inspectors will inspect the hemp again once those efforts are undertaken.

“There are a lot of variables the grower has to be aware of,” Monn said.

Although hemp acres have basically doubled in Idaho this year, the crop has a long way to go to catch the state’s major crops.

For example, Idaho farmers grow about 1 million acres of wheat, more than 1 million acres of hay, 500,000 acres of barley, 350,000 acres of corn and about 300,000 acres of potatoes each year.

For now, it can be considered a burgeoning crop and growers are starting to figure out the agronomics of growing it in Idaho.

For some farmers, like Brad Darrington of Declo, it doesn’t appear that hemp will work out economically. He grew it last year but will not grow it this year.

“Why would I continue growing it if” it’s not going to pencil out for me, he said.

Madison County grower Brigham Cook grew almost 100 acres of hemp last year and will grow about the same amount this year.

“I think there’s a future for hemp and hopefully there is a future for hemp in Idaho,” he said. “There are a lot of potential uses for hemp that I believe will be a win for farmers who grow it.”

However, he added, there have been challenges in harvesting the crop.

“The harvest has been a huge issue,” Cook said. “It’s a new enough crop here that we just haven’t figured out all the quirks.”

He said hemp has been a pretty good help for weed control.

“It’s a crop that fits … in this part of Idaho and should be a good crop rotation for us,” Cook said.

Roberts farmer Triston Sponseller, believed to the state’s largest hemp grower last year, also owns the Idaho Hemp Processing facility in Rexburg. The company, which processes industrial hemp, contracts with growers throughout a wide swath of the state, from Jerome to Rexburg, out toward Arco and north of Arco toward Mackay.

“Harvesting has been a challenge,” Sponseller said. “It’s definitely been a tough crop compared to what we’re used to. It’s been a learning experience and there has been some trial and error.”

Sponseller said he’s been told by numerous agronomists, including in other states, that Idaho has ideal growing conditions for hemp.

“A lot of hemp companies are eyeing the state real hard,” he said.

Sponseller rotates hemp with wheat, barley and potatoes.

“The potato guys we’ve been working with really like how it fits into a rotation with potatoes,” he said.

Though the crop is new and Idaho farmers are still trying to learn the different agronomic quirks involved with producing it, at least Gem State growers are now in the game, said Braden Jensen, director of governmental affairs for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

“Idaho’s agriculture industry is extremely knowledgeable and innovative,” he said. “Our growers will figure out whether it’s an economically viable crop in our state.”

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