By Denise Key
Kihei — On Wednesday the final two committees of the Hawaii Senate approved a new agricultural bill that provides qualified farmers and ranches funds to offset the high cost of feed for livestock. HB 508 SD1—contains added language that allows farmers to grow industrial hemp for animal feed research. Next week it goes to the senate floor for a vote.
But Hawai‘i farmers may have to wait until 2016 before they can try growing industrial hemp to feed cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, fish and crustaceans. The bill still has to pass through a House and Senate joint committee. If both House and Senate do not pass agreed upon versions of this bill in the next few weeks, it won’t come up again until the 2016 legislative session.
The high cost of feed in Hawaiʻi constrains cattle ranchers, who used to grow beef, but now just breed and ship calves to ranches and feed lots on the mainland. Industrial hemp feed has the potential to revive Hawaiʻi’s beef cattle industry. As a cash crop, it will boost all livestock production and other agricultural sectors too. Hemp seed is also a good food for humans. Oil extracted from the seed is rich in Omega 3 and 6 and has hundreds of commercial and nutritional applications. Biofuel is just one. Hemp fiber becomes thread and fabric; pulverized stalks mixed with water and binders, turns into a semi-structural insulation for building Hawaiʻi homes. Commercial hemp grows as dense green fields of 12-foot plants that will mitigate run-off, dust and brush fire problems in old cane and pineapple fields.
Recent industrial hemp legislation, signed into law April 2014, allowed UH to research varieties of industrial hemp seeds that might grow well in Hawai‘i. However, the small study will not address animal feed. Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont have already begun growing industrial hemp; a total of 22 state legislatures have passed some hemp legislation loosening restrictions on growing industrial hemp, a plant in the cannabis family that contains less than 1% THC, but produces lots of nutritious seeds.
In Europe, steer fed on hemp thrive and dairy cows give more milk. Eggs from chickens fed on hemp are rich in Omega 3. Industrial hemp roots actually improve topsoil by a process called “phytoremediation.” The roots remove toxins and petrochemical residues from topsoil that might otherwise take generations to dissipate. Rotating hemp with nitrogen-fixing plants like alfalfa restores topsoil to safe agricultural use.
The ranchers’ and farmers’ bill came to the legislature in February, ten months after the UH research project was approved in April 2014. It allows broader feedstock studies, undertaken in different climate zones on all islands. Economically, industrial hemp is Hawaiʻi agriculture’s newest cash crop—and perhaps a way to regain the economic strength of ranches on Maui, Hawaiʻi and Molokaʻi. For residents and visitors, it is an opportunity to restore the lush green flat lands of recent memory—and say goodbye to dusty abandoned fields that invite brush fires in the dry season.