SPRINGFIELD – Trent Lawrence had a rude awakening earlier this week. Overnight, mice had gotten into the greenhouse on his farm and eaten several dozen trays of seedlings he was planning to transplant into a field.
Lawrence and his wife, Jami, work a 26-acre farm outside of Delavan, about 30 miles south of Peoria, in Tazewell County. For the past several years, they’ve been growing organic peppers, tomatoes and a variety of other specialty crops. But this year, they’re starting a new crop that became legal in Illinois only earlier this year, industrial hemp, and that’s what the mice found especially tasty.
At a cost ranging from 25 cents to $1 per seed, rodents in the greenhouse are just one of many risks that Illinois hemp farmers face.
“It’s very risky, very risky,” Lawrence said during an interview on his farm.
Fortunately for Lawrence, the damage was minimal. He has hundreds more seedlings growing in that same greenhouse, and hundreds more on top of that germinating under lights in an upstairs room of the house that sits on the property.
With luck, each of those plants will grow to produce 1 to 2 pounds of flower rich in a compound called cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, which when extracted can be used to control a wide range of medical conditions including seizure disorders. And with market prices ranging from $80 to $100 a pound, depending on its CBD content, that makes each one of those seedlings extremely valuable.
That industry, however, became possible only in recent years. Since the 1930s, industrial hemp had been illegal in the United States, with a brief exception during World War II, because it was classified as a narcotic in the same category as marijuana. It was only in 2014 that Congress began allowing states to authorize limited production for research purposes, and it was finally legalized completely in the 2018 Farm Bill, which Congress passed in December.
“Six months ago, this would have been the mother of all felonies,” Lawrence said as he looked around his greenhouse. “It’s no joke. Until the 2018 Farm Bill was signed, it was still under controlled substance territory. This would have been a Schedule I drug, but since they deregulated CBD – they removed CBD out of the Schedule I drug category.”
Lawrence said the plants classify as industrial hemp as long as they test below 0.3 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
In terms of income potential, however, there is little comparison. In 2017, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, corn production in Illinois averaged 201 bushels per acre, and it sold for $3.35 a bushel, or $673.35 per acre. Soybeans yielded roughly $556.80 per acre.
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