Dec. 12--The move comes a few years too late for one major jobs prospect but Congress' agreement to fully legalize industrial hemp will give a big boost to Pueblo's push to become a national leader in the industry, according to the Pueblo Economic Development Corp.
The legalization measure is included in the 2018 farm bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday and is expected to also pass the House. The measure re-categorizes industrial hemp as an agricultural product instead of a controlled substance like marijuana.
"They've carved out exceptions in the farm bill in the past (to allow for limited hemp farming and manufacturing) ... but removing it from a list of controlled substances really alleviates a lot of that uncertainty," PEDCO chief executive Jeff Shaw said Tuesday.
Pueblo was among the first U.S. communities to push for the development of industrial hemp.
"You combine the agriculture and Pueblo's history on the industrial and manufacturing side and we see it as a big opportunity," Shaw said.
Pueblo County and Southeastern Colorado offer among the best growing conditions for hemp of any area in the state or nation, according to industry groups. Hemp products can be used for wellness supplements, rope, paper, clothing and building materials, among other uses, they say.
In 2015, around the time Colorado legalized hemp and Congress agreed to let individual states conduct pilot projects, Pueblo made headlines when startup company CBD Biosciences announced plans to open the nation's largest hemp oil factory at the former Boeing rocket assembly plant at the Airport Industrial Park.
The company later shelved the project -- and the pledge of at least 163 jobs -- due in part to the remaining legal questions that surrounded the emerging industry, both at the federal level and also between states.
Pueblo never gave up on hemp, though.
Pueblo County was the first Colorado county to adopt regulations for growing industrial hemp.
PEDCO elevated industrial hemp to one of the city's main targets for future job growth.
The state launched the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo to research both industrial hemp and marijuana. Both are species of the cannabis plant but hemp lacks the THC levels that give marijuana its high.
Another startup, Veritas Farms, a project of Florida-based SanSal Wellness, launched its farm and production complex west of Lake Pueblo that makes organic hemp oil tinctures, salves and other products while employing more than 40 workers.
Exisitng farms in the region began planting more hemp and exploring product tie-ins.
Today, PEDCO continues to work with numerous prospects interested in developing projects, Shaw said. The decision by Congress to fully legalize likely will spark more interest, he said. Beyond startups, established companies in other fields are likely to explore entry into the industry, he said.
Pueblo's goal of becoming a leader in industrial hemp recently passed muster with the expert consultants of Wisconsin-based Ady Advantage. Earlier this year, the consulting firm helped Pueblo craft an updated economic development strategic plan that judged industrial hemp as among the handful of industries Pueblo should target.
"Colorado and Pueblo already lead the nation in activities relating to hemp manufacturing and there are many value-added opportunities that the region is well positioned to pursue," the consulting team said in its report.
Statewide, the farm acreage planted in hemp has swelled from 1,811 in 2014 to 30,950 last year with Pueblo and other counties in Southeastern Colorado among the top grow sites, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Nationally, Colorado and Kentucky are regarded as the leading states for the industry.
"It's a great economic development project for us because you can use local sources for exporting products out of the community," adding to the area's wealth, Shaw said. If industrial and manufacturing uses grow, demand and prices for the crop should rise to benefit area farmers, further boosting the region's economy, he said.
U.S. Sen. Corey Gardner, R-Yuma, praised Congress' agreement on hemp and other measures contained in the farm bill.
"As a fifth generation Coloradan from a small town on the Eastern Plains where agriculture is a way of life, I know how important it is that Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on the farm bill," Gardner said in a statement.
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