SPRINGFIELD — A centuries-old crop, sidelined in the U.S. for decades despite its varied uses, will be sprouting again in Illinois this spring.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday that applications are available for growers looking to cash in on industrial hemp for the first time in 80 years.
A law signed last summer allowing commercial production of the crop used for clothing, food, medicine and more makes Illinois one of 40 states allowing cultivation, although in some places, it's still limited to research or pilot-program purposes. Officials could not immediately say how many states had approved full production like Illinois.
"Industrial hemp is a potentially billion-dollar industry that Illinois will now take part in," said Pritzker. "From farming and processing to sales and exports, this will have a massive impact on our state's economy. Farmers across the state can diversify their crops and join a growing industry."
Applications cost $100. Once approved, growers may buy cultivation licenses ranging from $375 for a one-year license to $1,000 for a three-year term. The fees will help finance Agriculture Department inspections of hemp plots to ensure that the plants contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana.
"Through the application process, you're going to identify where the field is going to be, and then our inspectors will be out there periodically throughout the year, testing the crop," Agriculture Director John Sullivan said.
Hemp has been used to make a variety of products for centuries. But American farmers lost interest when it was lumped together with marijuana in 1937 and essentially banned. It was listed as a controlled substance in 1970 in the federal government's attempt to hinder illicit drug use.
But the federal farm bill of 2014 left it up to states to decide how to regulate hemp and last year's update removed it from the list of controlled substances. After more than a decade of attempts to legalize it in Illinois, lawmakers sent legislation to former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who signed it into law last summer.
Sullivan said there are two major types of industrial hemp. One is used for its fiber, which can be processed into a wide range of materials from textiles to plastics. Another is used primarily for its oil, known as CBD oil, which is sold over-the-counter for a variety of medical uses such as controlling seizure disorders.
“I feel very confident that hemp has the potential to create jobs in the rural parts of the state, and quite frankly in the urban parts as well,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of interest (expressed) from the urban areas of the state as well. You don’t need acres and acres to grow hemp. You can do it on a smaller plot.”
Markets for the crop, however, are still in the development stage. It is not traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and there are no local marketplaces to sell the crop in the same way farmers sell wheat, corn or soybeans at local grain elevators, although Sullivan said there are some available in surrounding states.
Sullivan added he expects more markets to emerge as the industrial processing side of the business begins to grow.
“Once we know how many people are growing it, that’s going to lead to the processing side of it,” he said. “We have to grow it before we can process it.”
Marijuana itself is not far behind. Pritzker, a Democrat who campaigned on legalizing its recreational use, said he expects legislation to be introduced this week that will answer concerns from members of the Legislative Black Caucus that minorities would be targeted by the new industry and not have a chance to benefit financially from it.
"One of my focus areas for this issue has been equity and making sure that we're addressing the fact that the war on drugs most affected communities of color," Pritzker said. "We want to make sure this bill addresses discrimination that existed and also gives people an opportunity create new businesses."
Capitol News Illinois contributed to this story.