In the early years of Montana’s hemp program, most farmers had their sights set on cultivating hemp for CBD. Now, farmers’ focuses are transitioning to the fiber and grain industries.

Let’s take it back to the beginning.

Hemp plants first hit Montana’s soil in 2017 under the state’s pilot program. There were 17 licensed growers at the time, many of whom had high hopes for the crop.

Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA) Director Christy Clark says hemp program officials spent “countless hours” that year building the commodity program. “Many, many hours were spent in a conference room with all hands on deck. We had marketing; we had research; we had the lab; we had everybody—even the accountants in there trying to figure out how this is going to work. [It] took a tremendous amount of manpower.”

Since then, the number of licensed hemp growers and total acres planted has drastically changed each year.

© Courtesy of Montana State Department of Agriculture

Montana hemp plantsBased on data from the MDA, in 2018, there were 42 licensed growers and 13,645 total acres planted, including acres planted on tribal reservations. (The MDA does not license hemp growers on native reservations; they are under the USDA’s jurisdiction). While 11,100 acres were planted for CBD, 2,500 acres were planted for grain, and 45 acres were planted for fiber that year.

In 2019, following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, those numbers skyrocketed. There were 197 licensed growers and 48,930 total acres planted—including those on tribal reservations. Forty-thousand acres were grown for CBD, 8,500 acres were grown for grain, 30 acres were grown for fiber, and 400 acres were grown for fiber and grain.

But in 2020, the number of hemp licenses dropped to 97 (a 50.8% decrease), and acres planted decreased to 10,950 (77.6%). Most notably, the total acres planted for CBD dropped to 1,400 (96.5%). These numbers fall in line with the national trend during that time of oversaturation in the CBD market, which hurt production and prices.

The state’s high-acreage-to-low-license ratio is interesting to note. “We’re a large acreage state,” Clark says. “When you see a 500-acre hemp field, it’s pretty astounding, and that’s not uncommon in Montana. … [Growers] always tend to plant things in large acreages.”

Establishing a Hemp Market

While 2020 was a challenging year for the Montana hemp market, Clark says it’s finally starting to stabilize itself, primarily through the food, fiber, and grain industries. 

© Courtesy of Montana Department of Agriculture

Close up of Montana hemp plant.

“It’s gone through a metamorphosis in the sense that it’s now recognized as a commodity, although, not maybe technically in law, but in farmer’s eyes as a good rotation. And it has many other uses that are not CBD specific,” she says.

The interest shows in the data. Based on the USDA’s Hemp Acreage and Production Survey, in 2021, Montana hemp farmers planted the second-most amount of hemp—7,900 acres—and harvested more hemp—4,500 acres—than producers anywhere else in the U.S. (The USDA’s data includes acres planted and harvested on tribal reservations).

RELATED: Colorado and Montana Top Lists of Most Hemp Acres Planted and Harvested in 2021

The processing capacity for food, fiber, and grain, is also growing in the state.

“Hemp has matured into just a really good rotational crop that has a lot of soil benefits, has a lot of rotational benefits, and now has a solid market share.” – Montana’s Hemp Program Director Christy Clark.

For example, IND HEMP, a family-owned hemp oilseed and fiber company launched in 2019, recently expanded its Montana footprint and opened a hemp fiber processing plant in Fort Benton, across the street from its oilseed facility.

The processing facility came after farmers had concerns about how to dispose of the residual straw left on the field after grain harvest, Gregg Gnecco, IND HEMP brand and marketing director, told Hemp Grower. And with the new facility, farmers can take their residual straw and process it into fiber, which IND HEMP sees a future for in Montana.

“There is a lot of opportunity for a lot of people in the hemp fiber space,” Gnecco said. “And it’s going to take more than just IND HEMP getting operations, supporting their local farmers, and building material for these larger industries. … If COVID taught us anything, [it’s] people want diversified supply chains. So, there are people that need more fiber right now than we could make them if we were their sole provider. So, to really make an impact, we need the industry to grow, and we are excited to play our role in that.”

Clark agrees as she says the Agriculture Department has hopes for the potential of more processing facilities to come online in Montana soon.

“I think IND HEMP is acting as an anchor tenant in the state to stabilize the growing market,” she says. “So, there’s always going to be people that are going to want to grow hemp, and that keeps a stable supply, and people are going to want to locate [here]. We see that more and more.”

Clark also says a relatively large food manufacturer that focuses on hemp hearts and protein recently relocated to Great Falls, Mont., and there are talks of another fiber manufacturer potentially coming next to IND HEMP. She says there are also some smaller processing facilities in Montana that focus on refining hemp into fiber in various ways.

“I think once you get that anchor established, then we can expand that,” she says. “So, we’re out talking to people. … We’ll continue to push forward and say, ‘Hey, bring your businesses to Montana. … Bring your businesses to where the product is grown.’ And so, for us, it’s pretty exciting to see that and those businesses that want to locate here.”

Overall, Clark says she sees Montana becoming recognized as a “hemp growing state,” and more farmers are starting to incorporate the crop into their rotation.

“Hemp has matured into just a really good rotational crop that has a lot of soil benefits, has a lot of rotational benefits, and now has a solid market share,” she says. “It has a place where you can contract to grow hemp; that’s new. I mean, that has stabilized, I would say. And that gives farmers reassurance that, if they do grow hemp, there is a market, and it is with reputable companies. And so that’s what I’ve seen. I’ve just seen hemp mature in that way.”