Nebraska farmers could have a new crop to grow if a bill that was forwarded by the Legislature's Agriculture Committee gets debated this session and advances.

The bill (LB657), introduced by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne and prioritized by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, would allow growers to get a hemp crop planted this season. At the bill's hearing in February, there were 13 proponents and no one testifying in opposition. It was advanced on an 8-0 vote.

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, and has been used around the world as a fiber and oil seed for industrial and consumer products. It contains much lower levels of THC, the ingredient that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties.

"It could be a significant crop in the future. It's going to take a few years for that to happen," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Steve Halloran.

Wayne said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop's bill (LB457) would be amended into his bill. It would exclude industrial hemp from the definition of a controlled substance, along with its derivatives and products, including CBD products, with a THC concentration of not more than 0.3 percent.

The bill calls for testing of the product to ensure it meets that level.

Growers must apply and be licensed, and cannot have been convicted of a state or federal drug felony within the preceding 10 years.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp as an agricultural commodity. Wayne's amended bill would allow the crop to be grown as the 2014 Farm Bill would allow, for research purposes.

Hemp takes very little water, it helps break up soil compaction, and it can help take nitrates out of the soil and reduce the issues caused by nitrates, Halloran said.

It can be a great cover crop and a great alternative crop, Wayne said.

"It's going to be an experiment ... between the industry and the growers, and we'll see if it works for everybody," Halloran said. "I think it's worth pursuing."

Any person wanting to raise industrial hemp must register.

Halloran said there was discussion about limiting participation the first year, but the committee decided not to do that.

"In my estimation, being this time of the year, the planting season for it is going to be pretty much into May for a good crop, that there won't be a huge number of participants," he said.

The first couple of years will likely be establishing crops for seeds, Wayne said.

There are no hemp processors within the state. But the hemp crops allowed by this bill should encourage processors to invest capital in the state for a variety of products.

"They're not going to be compelled to invest capital unless we have a bill that says, 'OK, producers can grow,'" Halloran said.

Wayne said hemp was actually grown in Nebraska in the 1940s, and the state had more hemp per acre than any other state. That's why there's so much feral and heirloom plants that have naturally survived.

"We have one of the best strains of natural low THC hemp, and we have some of the best soil for it," Wayne said. "Nebraska can be the leader in this, we have so much wild growing already."

So why, you may be asking, would an urban senator be pushing this bill?

"From a processing standpoint, I think this is a job market for our municipalities who are looking for areas to replace some of their warehouses, some of their old facilities," he said. And for people interested in the environment, hemp can produce products that can save trees and lower the carbon footprint.

"This industry is going to grow to over $1 billion in the next two years. We need to be a part of that," he said.

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