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Growing for the future

Education is part of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Industrial Hemp Pilot Project. Grower Josh Helberg says, "Hemp is useless if you’re looking to get high and all of the legislative concerns about that are asinine." Contributed photo. 1 / 3
Josh Helberg, kneeling, shows off his first harvest of hemp with University of Minnesota researchers, from left to right: German Vargas, Austin Dobbels, Josh Helberg, Clemon Dabney III, Leon Sanders III. Contributed photo. 2 / 3
Josh Helberg planted four acres of industrial hemp in Benton County in 2016 as part of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. This was the first time that hemp had been legally grown in Minnesota since the federal government banned it in 1957. Contributed photo. 3 / 3

Like many small business owners, Josh Helberg is always looking for new ways to grow his business. But Helberg is taking the unusual step of literally growing a crop that could become building materials for his construction business - industrial hemp.

This year is the second year of a Industrial Hemp Pilot Project through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In 2016, seven producers across the state, including Helberg, planted the first hemp crop in the state since the plant was banned in the 1950s.

Helberg planted four acres of hemp last year in Benton County. This year, he is looking at utilizing his family farm in Stevens County to increase the number of acres he'll plant.

MDA spokesman Allen Sommerfeld said they have received 41 applications this year from producers wanting to participate in the hemp project. But Sommerfeld stresses that there's more to it than just applying, "Producers have to undergo background checks, become licensed and register with the state."

Helberg admits he's sticking his neck out for a crop that's widely misunderstood.

"It's nothing like marijuana. Hemp is useless if you're looking to get high and all of the legislative concerns about that are asinine," Helberg asserted. Nonetheless, Helberg made sure to alert local law enforcement that he would be growing the crop, as much for his own security as for awareness.

And he recognizes that education is part of pilot program, for growers as well as consumers.

"It's just like corn and should be treated the same as corn or soybeans," Helberg said of the hemp plant.

In addition to the business benefits of an industrial hemp crop, Helberg contends that there are environmental benefits as well. He was able to grow hemp last year without herbicides, pesticides or irrigation, which he says makes this a good crop to plant as a transition to organic.

"You can plant hemp on hemp," Helberg said.

Currently, Helberg owns two small businesses - Exterior Pro and Minnesota Seamless Concepts - that he hopes will benefit from the many uses of industrial hemp. The list of products made from hemp includes hempcrete, hemp fiberboard, insulation and more. And Helberg contends that "virtually every [hemp] product is better than the existing product."

Helberg carries a briefcase made from hemp and hands out business cards printed on hemp and will quickly point out why they are superior to what's on the market now.

In addition to using hemp products in his own businesses, Helberg is trying to encourage others to try hemp. He has a shipment of hemp hurd - left-over fragments of the stems and stalk once all the fibers have been removed - being shipped to him after being imported from Europe for use as animal bedding and landscape mulch.

The list of edible hemp products is even longer and Helberg is an enthusiastic promoter of that market as well.

"This is an amazing crop and I'm excited to be involved with it now. Plus, it's sexy to be doing what I'm doing," Helberg says with a smile.

In fact, Helberg has no shortage of enthusiasm for all of the benefits of industrial hemp, including the potential it could bring to Minnesota farmers.

More importantly, Helberg believes hemp is an opportunity to create something to pass on to his children.

"Right now, I really have nothing to leave to them for a legacy My construction businesses are built on my ability to work, to hire a workforce. That's not something I can leave to them. But with all of the potential in industrial hemp as a cash crop and a commodity, that's something my kids can inherit," Helberg said.

Helberg grew up on a farm in Stevens County, graduated from Morris Area High School in 1998, headed off to St. Cloud for college and by 2001 had started his own construction business. In addition to his two construction businesses, he has recently started another venture, Good Ole Hemp, a limited liability company that he hopes will one day be marketing any number of hemp products.

"My goal is to one day be selling hemp products on Amazon," Helberg announced.

University of Minnesota research assistant Clemon Dabny agrees that the potential for industrial hemp is big, noting the crop is a $500 million industry in Canada.

Dabny agrees with Helberg that Minnesota is poised to be a major producer of hemp. "We have a favorable climate and soils beneficial for industrial hemp production. Hemp production supports and creates rural jobs and stimulates the economy in those areas that cultivate hemp. The average hemp grain yield in Minnesota in 2016 was 1,334 pounds of grain per acre. We have a lot of potential that can be realized with more agronomic research and proper cultivar selection."

Sommerfeld says there's still a lot of work to do to build an infrastructure for any potential hemp industries. Part of the pilot project is to identify potential harvesters, processors and elevators that can handle the crop.

But those aren't the only hurdles. The federal government still lists hemp as a controlled substance, and any expansion of the crop beyond the pilot project would mean the plant would have to be declassified. Helberg can list off the top of his head those state legislators who are opposed to industrial hemp and wonders why they can't see the crop's potential.

And Helberg says that's one of several areas he needs help with to keep growing the hemp market and he's hoping more farmers will get involved in developing this crop's potential.

One of the nagging inconsistencies that he cites is the fact that it's illegal to feed hemp to livestock, but not to humans. In fact, he's quick to offer a taste of roasted hemp seed and ask, "Isn't the good? Now why can't we offer feed from this same plant to cattle?"

Helberg is hoping to find a livestock producer who agrees and is willing to work with him to get that regulation changed.

Dabny calls Helberg a hemp pioneer.

"Josh is the type of hemp farmer the industry needs; he is open to share his experience as a hemp farmer and more importantly he is willing to learn and adapt to the market. Josh has been experimenting with using the leftover hemp stalks to make products like animal bedding and mulch as well as selling his grain to local brewers to make a hemp beer."

Sommerfeld agrees, noting that Helberg's enthusiasm will draw interest in the pilot project.

Helberg. Sommerfeld and Dabny all agree there's much more work to be done regarding industrial hemp, and they welcome questions. Helberg is hoping to find other hemp supporters to help promote and more importantly, consume hemp.

He invites you to follow him on Facebook at Good Ole Hemp LLC.