By TIM ALEXANDER
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Nearly 500 potential hemp farmers and processors submitted applications to the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) in the first four days the department began accepting submissions. The IDOA began receiving applications at 9 a.m. on April 30, and is in the process of reviewing the 396 grower and 98 processor submissions received.
The pioneering producers represent the first wave of farmers to take advantage of passage of the state legislature’s Industrial Hemp Act – later supported by the 2018 farm bill – allowing farmers to cultivate hemp for industrial purposes in Illinois for the first time since the 1940s.
According to IDOA Director John Sullivan, no single issue has generated more interest at the agency from farmers since the passage of the Industrial Hemp Act in 2018. Expanding potential markets for growers by allowing controlled hemp production was a campaign promise made by new Gov. JB Pritzker to farmers last year.
“As Governor, I will ensure Illinois remains at the forefront of what it means to be a 21st century agricultural economy,” said Pritzker. “Industrial hemp is a potentially billion-dollar industry that Illinois will now take part in. From farming and processing to sales and exports, this will have a massive impact on our state’s economy.”
Farmers and processors will pay between $375-$1,000 for production licenses spanning 1-3 years, with an additional $100 application fee for the right to cultivate and process industrial hemp in Illinois. The fees collected by the IDOA will be used primarily for staff and inspectors’ salaries, according to Jeff Cox, bureau chief of medicinal plants at the agency.
“The fees are used to help pay the salaries of our inspectors. We are not in this to make money, by any means, but we have to pay for the gasoline to go out to the farms for inspections, we need to pay for inspectors’ health insurance, and what have you,” he explained.
“We have not ruled out revisiting those fees. In two years we may decide we can lower those fees, or we may decide we need to raise them. It truly is an experiment for all of us at this point.”
The fees imposed by Illinois are mid-to-low range compared with other states, Cox said, adding they are assessed by various states on a per-acre, per-farm field, or flat-fee scale.
There are many important factors for first-time hemp growers in Illinois to consider, according to the bureau chief. “First and foremost, you do have to be licensed to grow industrial hemp in Illinois. This is not only for the state’s protection, but for the grower’s protection.
“We have to know where (hemp) is, so if we get a call from a deputy we can say, ‘Yes, this farmer is licensed to grow industrial hemp and it is supposed to be in that field,’” he said.
Regulations and applications for cultivation of industrial hemp in Illinois are available on the IDOA website at www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr (click on “plants,” “industrial hemp”). Growers will be asked for both their business address and the physical address or GPS coordinates of any properties to be utilized for hemp production.
A special GPS map is included on the website, permitting applicants to zoom in and click on the exact coordinates of the location of their planned hemp fields. This information is recorded on the IDOA grower database.
Those considering industrial hemp cultivation should know that licenses will not be granted to individuals with a controlled substances felony conviction in a U.S. court in the past 10 years, according to Cox.
Although hemp was primarily grown in Illinois in the 1940s for fiber – notably, rope produced during World War II – today’s growers have choices in which types of hemp to produce for varying markets. While fibers for industrial use remains the primary product, an emerging market is already providing solid returns to hemp producers and processors in other states.
“The big market is the CBD (cannabidiol) oil. There are claims of therapeutic benefits and effects on people who use it as an anti-inflammatory or anti-anxiety medicine,” Cox said.
Only certified strains of hemp seed or plants, however, can legally be sold in Illinois – and none of the varieties currently certified for sale in the state are intended to be grown for their oil.
“We realized there are no certified strains for CBD when farmers started calling wondering why we passed these rules, when they can’t grow the crop,” he admitted. “We reached out to multiple other states, including Kentucky and Colorado, places that have been growing hemp in a program for a little while.
“We decided to allow Illinois growers to produce hemp with either certified seed, or seed accompanied by a certificate of analysis that shows that the genetics have at least been tested to show that the plants will not contain more than 3 percent THC (the main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis) content.”
The IDOA is working on a digital database that will allow growers to connect with suppliers of hemp seed, which is primarily being purchased from Kentucky, Colorado, Oregon, or Canada for growth in Illinois. Potential hemp seed suppliers who wish to operate within Illinois must register with the agency to obtain the proper permits. Processors must also register with the department.
As of May 3, approximately 8,700 acres had been approved for hemp production by the IDOA, located “in all four corners of the state,” Cox said.