Illinois Farmers One Step Closer to Industrial Hemp

On Thursday, May 4th, the Illinois State Senate voted unanimously to help Illinois farmers, the state economy, and the environment by allowing the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) to license farmers to grow industrial hemp as authorized under the 2014 Federal Farm Bill. The Industrial Hemp Bill (SB1294), which has garnered approval on both sides of the isle, now awaits an expected passage in the House.

Illinois Stewardship Alliance and Illinois Farmers Union initiated this bill, and have collaborated with the Illinois Environmental Council and Illinois Farm Bureau in a coalition of farm and environmental interests to bring hemp back to Illinois.

Salvador Jasso, a clothing designer in Glendale Heights said he is excited for the opportunity to source hemp locally instead of purchasing hemp from China. “I have created a hemp clothing line to bring opportunities back home to the people who founded Illinois, our farmers. I want to revitalize our soil, our foundation, and to rebuild our communities for a sustainable future.”

Salvador Jasso poses sporting a pair of hemp pants that he designed himself during Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s Local Food Lobby Day.

There are at least 25,000 different products that could be made from hemp, from plastic alternatives to “hempcrete” and particle board, food, cosmetics, rope, clothing, and much more, according to North Dakota State University research.

As Jasso notes, hemp is valued for more than just its end use. Hemp also holds promise for remediating contaminated soils, helping farmers transition to organic, and may be able to outcompete aggressive herbicide-resistant weeds, helping farmers combat this major problem without having to turn to harsher herbicides.

In the 40’s, Illinois was a lead producer of hemp. Farmer Chad Wallace of Oak Tree Farms in Asheville said, “A lot of people, including my grandparents, used to grow hemp back in the day. We still have it coming up wild on my farm sometimes. I’m very interested in the possibility of using hemp to help naturally transition some of my farmland to organic production in the future while still earning income for a cash crop.”

State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D – Chicago Heights) sponsored the legislation, which quickly garnered bipartisan support with chief cosponsor State Senator Sam McCann (R – Jacksonville). While Illinois passed an industrial hemp bill in 2014 in response to the Farm Bill, that legislation only allowed state universities offering four-year agricultural sciences degrees to become licensed – not farmers. No applications have been filed by any university.

In the meantime, the DEA, FDA, and USDA issued a statement clarifying that state departments of agriculture could license farmers to participate in industrial hemp programs if state law so allowed. A permissible research purpose under the Farm Bill is marketing. Neighboring Kentucky enrolled over 135 farms and 40 processors in its state hemp program in 2016, and it is already possible to purchase hemp products grown and processed in Kentucky.

“This legislation gives Illinois farmers the freedom to try growing a crop that’s good for their bottom line and can keep our waterways cleaner,” Executive Director Liz Moran Stelk of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance said. She applauded Senators from both sides of the aisle and across the state for passing the bill unanimously. “We encourage the House to follow the Senate’s leadership and pass this bill. It’s a win-win-win for farmers, our state and our economy.”

Illinois was a leading producer of industrial hemp during World War II, with a national hemp pilot project based in Polo, Illinois.