DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington state, but the status of one of its very close cousins is less certain. Across the country, a handful of farmers are planting hemp - a plant with an incredibly wide range of uses, none of them drug related. The go-ahead to plant hemp was given in the latest federal farm bill. Despite that, farmers say they're still getting mixed messages from the federal government. From member station KUNC in Greeley, CO, Luke Runyon reports.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: On a windy morning at his home in Brighton, CO., - a small town just outside Denver - Jim Denny is prepping for planting season.
JIM DENNY: And one is out here, in this - used to be a vegetable garden.
RUNYON: Denny's one of more than 100 growers - given the nod by the state's Department of Agriculture to start planting. Hemp is the same species of marijuana, but a different variety - one that lacks THC, the compound that gives users a high when smoked or ingested. Hemp seeds are increasingly showing up in foods. And Denny says the plants' fibers can be turned into anything from clothing to rope to car interiors.
DENNY: The crop right now is sellable. I've already had people contact me on my website saying, we know you're growing stuff and we want to buy from you already, and we haven't even put it in the ground.
RUNYON: The recent farm bill allows farmers to start experimenting with hemp, where state laws have legalized the crop. The plant's been tightly controlled for almost 50 years. Before then...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: This is hemp seed. Be careful how you use it.
RUNYON: During World War II, the U.S. was so hard up for hemp for use in rope on naval ships and on troopers' parachutes. The Department of Agriculture actually made a promotional film to encourage farmers to grow it. The film's title...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: Hemp for Victory.
RUNYON: But that was a long time ago. And today, U.S. hemp seed is scarce. It's technically still illegal to import viable seed, it has to be sterile. So anyone with usable seed is suddenly very, very popular.
BEN HOLMES: So, this is a small flowering and here, these too...
RUNYON: Ben Holmes is one of those people. He's owner of Centennial Seeds. In his warehouse in Lafayette, CO., emerald-colored hemp plants tower overhead.
HOLMES: So these would be 20 feet tall.
RUNYON: Oh, my gosh.
HOLMES: Yeah, completely unmanageable.
RUNYON: This year, where demand for hempseed far exceeds the supply, Holmes says he's been inundated.
HOLMES: And I get calls every day of every week of people who want to go into the hemp business. And I let them know that the seed isn't available, that they really are sort of lost.
RUNYON: Even though Holmes is in a great situation to actually get seed to farmers being a distributor, he doesn't have enough to go around. Holmes even admits he had to acquire some of his seed through nefarious means.
HOLMES: It would just show up in the mail or by FedEx, or someone would come to my office and say, I'm a friend of so-and-so from Czech Republic and he asked me to give you this, and little bits of seed would come my way.
RUNYON: That level of intrigue is probably enough to scare off most large-scale crop farmers from hemp. And the reality is it's pretty tough to grow hemp in the U.S. right now. With limited seed stocks, legal roadblocks and nonexistent research. Eric Steenstra, executive director of Vote Hemp, a group that lobbies for hemp legalization, is tempering expectations that hemp will be a savior crop for struggling Great Plains farmers - at least initially.
ERIC STEENSTRA: There's no question in my mind that this could be a multibillion-dollar crop where we could see, you know, millions of acres, eventually. Is that going to happen in a year or two? Of course not.
RUNYON: But Steenstra says with the plants' inclusion in the latest farm bill, it may not be too long before some of America's amber waves of grain get a little greener. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyan in Greeley, CO.
GREENE: Luke's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public media collaboration focusing on agriculture and food. This is NPR News.