Michael Wilson and James DeWitt are no scientists — a fact belied by the white lab coats and safety goggles they wear and the ease with which they discuss plant genetics, photosynthesis and pollination. “We’re fast learners,” Wilson said after showing off their high-tech operation set inside a nondescript Johnson County industrial park. But the science lab vibe fits with their experimental work: The two are among the first Kansans hoping to profit off industrial hemp, a close relative of marijuana that just became legal to grow in the U.S. for the first time in decades.
Last week, Wilson and DeWitt harvested the fruits of their first crop, a modest haul grown inside a tiny warehouse in southern Olathe. But the two plan to expand rapidly to capitalize on this emerging — if unproven — market. U.S. farmers have suffered through years of low commodity prices and international trade conflicts — financial challenges that might be fueling farmers’ increased interest in hemp. And its debut onto the domestic agricultural market comes amid an explosion in hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, products and stores. Those factors have some farmers looking to industrial hemp as their next cash crop.
More than 200 growers in Kansas will harvest hemp this year under the state’s heavily regulated inaugural research program. While it requires the creation of a research plan, the program still allows farmers to monetize their crops. And Wilson and DeWitt’s business, United American Hemp, an indoor operation conducive to a faster grow cycle than outdoor farm fields, was among the first hemp facilities in Kansas to do so, according to the state agriculture department.