PIERRE, S.D. — Advocates for industrial hemp production in South Dakota met Monday, Oct. 7, in Pierre to discuss the future of the industry with an eye to making the product legal in the state.

Citizens and members of various organizations and companies gathered at South Dakota Hemp Day to hear about the uses and status of the product in one of the few states where the product is illegal despite legalization at the federal level through the 2018 Farm Bill.

Randy Stratton, with the company Securcrop and one of the organizers of the event, said he hoped to see progress on the issue during the next legislative session.

“The idea for the (South Dakota Hemp Day) is to coincide with what the Legislature is working on, which is putting together some guidelines in conjunction with United States Department of Agriculture regulations that are coming and incorporating some of those into legislation that will be introduced in January,” Stratton said.

Rep. Lee Qualm, the chairman of the Industrial Hemp Study Committee, said he was disappointed when Noem vetoed a hemp legalization bill last year, but South Dakota can now take some time to learn from what other states have done.

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“We can learn a lot about it from the states that are producing hemp; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Qualm said.

Rep. Oren Lesmeister, lead sponsor of the legislation that would allow hemp growing in South Dakota, said licensing and federal background checks would be required to grow the product. He also said it is important to take the proper time to get the legislation drafted correctly.

“We’re taking our time on it. We want to write one bill this time and not add 35 amendments to it. From when we started down this road four or five years ago, we’ve come a long way. Not just with the bill but with the education,” Lesmeister said.

Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, which helped organize South Dakota Hemp Day, said there is potential for hemp in South Dakota.

“This is a good thing for South Dakota processors, for South Dakota as a whole. Right now we have people outside South Dakota borders developing their niche in this market,” Sombke said.

Organizers of the event spent part of the day at an Industrial Hemp Study Committee meeting at the Capitol, listening to testimony and getting a feel for where lawmakers stand on making industrial hemp a viable economic resource for the state.

South Dakota Hemp Day is about information and education, Stratton said.

“Really today is just about making sure everybody understands what the economic opportunity is for South Dakota — for farmers, for small towns — and that any potential challenges and burdens that may come with that can be overcome, because other states have figured it out,” Stratton said.

South Dakota is one of three states, along with Idaho and Mississippi, that have not legalized hemp despite the latest farm bill granting it legal status at the federal level. Last year the state Legislature sent House Bill 1191, legalizing the growth, production, and processing of industrial hemp and its products in the state, to Gov. Kristi Noem’s desk, where she vetoed it. The House overrode the veto with the required two-thirds vote; voting 55 for and 11 against. The Senate, however, failed in reaching its two-thirds required vote, getting only 20 yeas to 13 nays.

Stratton would like to see that change at the next legislative session.

“It’s a great rotational crop, and people need to understand the value of the economic side. We’re not saying it’s going to come and rescue every farmer; that’s foolish talk. We’re saying that they need other specialty crops,” Stratton said. “We need to be looking at ways to diversify our agricultural economy. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Hemp is not marijuana, he said, and it is required to have a concentration of 0.03 percent or less of THC, the active intoxicant in marijuana. Testing products to distinguish between hemp and marijuana have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, he said, which helps pave the way for being able to promote hemp without embracing marijuana.

The market for the plant is huge, both in the United States and other countries, Stratton said.

Stratton said the Legislature has to hammer out guidelines for testing the material and its transportation through the state. Those are issues other states have figured out, and he feels South Dakota can do so with leadership at the top level, he said.

“So, we have to be prepared as a state for that, and that falls on our administration to get that sorted out,” Stratton said. “The Legislature will do their work in January and have their discussions, and they’re having a debate today about what other states are doing. How are they handling law enforcement, how are they handling transportation issues, how are they going to do the testing? There are answers out there for all those questions,” Stratton said.

Reid Vander Veen, with Hemp Processing Solutions in Harrisburg, a company that makes hemp processing machinery, said South Dakota is missing out on an important new opportunity. It’s also hindering his company’s ability to remain an innovative leader in the industry, with some of this work now being done in Colorado, where hemp is legal.

“We’re selling equipment all over the United States. Right now we can sell to 47 states, but South Dakota is not one of them. We could sell it, but nobody would have any use for it. We’re not even able to test our equipment, frankly, as you can’t have possession (of hemp) on site,” Vander Veen said.

The benefits of adding another cover crop that South Dakota farmers could utilize seems obvious, he said.

“You had a perfect storm in 2019 for farmers. You had a really wet spring in a lot of areas. You have the largest number of prevent plant acres in any state in the country. One of the many benefits to (hemp) is the very rapid growing season, and you can use it as a cover crop or a primary crop; you can get that stuff in the ground pretty late and still see plants come to maturity and have a successful harvest even with a wet spring,” Vander Veen said.