Aaron LaPointe serves as business manager of Ho-Chunk Farms and sees hemp as a big opportunity for the Winnebago Tribe. Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Inc.

Winnebago Tribe among the first to enter industrial hemp industry

The Winnebago Tribe will soon become the first Indian nation in Nebraska to start planting hemp after receiving a state license to do so last week.

“This is a young industry with a lot of potential,” said Aaron LaPointe, business manager of Ho-Chunk Farms. “The 2019 season will be very small scale at 5.5 acres total. The data we collect during this pilot program gives us a head start for next year.”

Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation, owns Ho-Chunk Farms. Its subsidiary plans to begin planting hemp yet this summer on the tribe’s reservation in northeast Nebraska.

Ho-Chunk Farms was one of just 10 applicants granted a Nebraska license to start hemp farming this year out of 176 applications received by the state. Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signed the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act into law May 30.

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The 2014 U.S. farm bill authorized state departments of agriculture and higher educational institutions to grow and cultivate hemp under pilot research programs authorized by state law. Nebraska joins many Midwestern states aligning with federal law.

About half of Nebraska’s pilot program producers – including Ho-Chunk Farms – are currently finalizing agreements with the state. Ho-Chunk Farms expects to start planting in the coming weeks and also plans to work with the Ag Extension Program at Little Priest Tribal College on the reservation.

Industrial hemp was legalized in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill. The new law also authorized federally recognized tribes to develop their own regulatory plan for the production of hemp. The Winnebago Tribe’s regulatory plan, which it hopes will be effective for the 2020 growing season, will go through an approval process by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as required under the 2018 law.

But not everyone is satisfied with Nebraska’s implementation of the Hemp Farming Act.

Bill Hawkins, a Lincoln, Nebraska farmer and owner of Nebraska Hemp Co., was one of the 166 applicants denied a license to plant hemp. He said the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s decision to only approve 10 hemp farming licenses violates the spirit of the state act and the Legislature’s hopes that Nebraska’s agricultural producers might be able to capitalize on the growing demand for hemp products.

He said state employees charged with enacting the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act seem to be trying to impede meaningful progress toward establishing a thriving hemp industry in the state.

“Nebraska declared this a valuable agricultural crop for Nebraska, and our state ag department is not living up to that,” he said.

By comparison, agricultural officials in Illinois – which also established a hemp program for the first time this year – had approved 341 licenses to grow hemp and 79 licenses to process it as of late May.

Hawkins said not receiving a license to grow hemp this year means he won’t have the opportunity to harvest the 300 to 500 pounds of hemp he had planned to grow. He had hoped to sell that hemp at $2,000 to $3,000 a pound, meaning not receiving a license has led to a loss of potential revenue of between $1 million and $1.5 million for Hawkins, he said.

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As for those Nebraska producers approved for licenses, he said he expects they will be inundated with investors from across the country who want to cash in on the lucrative hemp industry.

“What we did was create a golden ticket lottery,” he said.

LaPointe said Ho-Chunk Farms will plant three varieties of hemp this year that can be used for fibers, grain feed and CBD oils.

“They’re all totally farmed differently,” he said. “We’re just going to put a whole lot of seed out.”

He said the cost of seeds for the three different varieties ranges from $4 a plant for seeds for CBD oil varieties to $4 a pound for seed for those that produce plants for grains and fibers.

This year, the company will focus on finding the most efficient and effective means to plant, grow and harvest hemp, rather than trying to generate revenue, LaPointe said. However, he said he’s hopeful the tribe will be able to expand its hemp acreage significantly in the coming years.

“There’s definitely potential for growth,” he said. “I know Ho-Chunk Farms and the tribe really want to pursue this industry.”

While the tribal company will have to abide by Nebraska regulations this year, it will be able to develop its own regulatory structure to license and manage its own growers next year with approval from the USDA, LaPointe said.

He said growing hemp also will allow Ho-Chunk Farms to more effectively rotate its crops each year and not have to depend primarily on corn and soybeans, which have seen dramatic price reductions in recent years.

“It’s a very valuable crop that grows very well and does very well for the soil with very little input,” he said.

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He said Ho-Chunk Farms and its parent company, Ho-Chunk Inc., likely will consider also getting involved in processing hemp and manufacturing hemp-based products should this year’s pilot project prove successful.

“It’s definitely in our plans to one day do that,” he said.

LaPointe said the tribe’s hemp research project this year could pave the way for other tribes to get involved in hemp production.

“The Winnebago Tribe, if we can approach this the right way and be successful with it, we could help other tribes, too,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for the Winnebago Tribe.”

Ho-Chunk Inc. owns Indianz.Com but the website is not involved in the corporation's activities.

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