Mississippi lawmakers voted to legalize hemp in June 2020, which makes the crop relatively new to farmers in the state; however, the Mississippi Industrial Hemp Association (MIHA) wants to help those interested in growing.
The MIHA is a non-profit organization that provides resources, education and practical expertise for hemp farmers. The association has launched a pilot program designed to aid farmers in growing hemp as a legal crop.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) was approved in June 2018, and Mississippi adopted it in 2020; however, at the time, there were about 275 licensed hemp farmers but none of them were actively cultivating hemp, says Melanie Sorenson, MIHA executive director.
"After we read through the task force report that Mississippi did, it said that there were four things [lacking] that needed to be in place for hemp to move forward: education for farmers in law enforcement, testing for hemp, having a distribution channel, and acquiring a processing facility," she says.
The MIHA and its pilot program launched simultaneously in December 2020. No similar organization in the state was focused on getting farmers to grow hemp and preparing them for it, Sorenson says.
"We looked at other states and what they had been doing and [decided] what we thought would be best for farmers," she says. "The pilot program allows them to learn about the plant before they go out and try to plant several acres of it. Essentially, the pilot program is an initiation into the process without them having to spend a ton of money."
To enroll in the pilot program, farmers must join the MIHA for $200 a year, Sorenson says. In the end, the farmer gets 70% of their product profits and MIHA gets 30%.
In exchange, farmers get not only education on how to grow hemp, but also receive free seeds and equipment, as well as assistance selling their product if they choose. Farmers involved may also handle the processing and distribution themselves if they’d prefer.
The association also provides consultation services to people in the program to discuss their soil, the best environment for them to grow in, their goals, what they are willing to put into it and more, she says.
In addition, the MIHA offers farmers quality control testing and guides them through the process of having their hemp sampled and tested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
"It's guidance," she said. "Our goal is that farmers have an option. We're not going to tell them how to grow. We're not going to tell them what they need to do. We're just here to offer information to help them be better farmers."
Four farmers are currently taking part in the current pilot program: three who started cultivating in February and another who is preparing to plant seeds soon.
The farmers in the program mainly consist of new, emerging farmers, Sorenson says. And while some of them have a background in agriculture from things like cattle and produce farming, none of the current farmers in the program have experience growing hemp.
The MIHA is launching its second pilot program in October to give farmers more time to prepare and learn, she said. And the association is in the process of creating things like classes and podcasts to help educate farmers.
Farmers are in the program for two years at a time, but MIHA plans to launch it every year to ensure a continuous flow of new farmers in the program.
One of the most prominent benefits farmers will gain from the program is collecting data, which is also why it's essential to create a program like this for farmers, she said.
"As we grow and as we bring in the feed for seed, bedding—those kinds of things—and as we get bigger and bigger, we'll [generate] more data," she said. "They'll have access to what seeds grow best in Mississippi, and we are currently working with the Mississippi Crop Management Association to get seeds certified here. We already have our germination impurity tests back, and now we're in field trials. So, there's a lot of data that is beneficial to farmers that gathering on their own would be difficult, but when you work with a group of people in an association, you're getting as much data as we can [all] possibly gather."
To learn more about the MIHA, visit their website.