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Hastings farmers: Grants, regulation shifts crucial to success

Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, was among a group of House agriculture policy and finance committee members to visit John Strohfus' industrial hemp field in Hastings Friday, Aug. 11. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
John Strohfus, a Hastings farmer who planted his first crop of industrial hemp in 2016, described the wide variety of uses for the plant in food and health products Friday, Aug. 11. He encouraged legislators present to consider lifting limitations on some products. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, led a guided tour of the organizations Hastings farm during a visit from members of the Minnesota House agriculture committees. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

A Hastings farmer known for trailblazing Minnesota's industrial hemp industry is urging lawmakers to lift some limitations on how his crop can be used and marketed.

Towers of spindly, green leaves swayed gently in the breeze as researchers, hemp industry stakeholders and members of the Minnesota House Agriculture Committees enjoyed an entirely hemp-fueled breakfast on John Strohfus' industrial hemp field Friday, Aug. 11.

From the muffins and banana bread to the coffee, each item on the spread included ingredients produced from hemp just like the crops from the Strohfus' field.

Strohfus, a hay farmer and horse breeder by trade, planted his first hemp crop last year when Minnesota implemented a hemp pilot project outlined by the 2014 federal farm bill.

The crop, which resembles marijuana but lacks the intoxicating components, can be processed into a variety of food and health products.

What Strohfus' crop produces has gained interest from retailers like Whole Foods— hemp hearts are a popular topping for salads and cereals, while hemp oil can be used in salad dressings — but state regulations limit how farmers can market other products.

Strohfus said he feeds his cattle hemp meal, a byproduct of cold-press hemp oil he said contains an abundance of proteins and nutrients.

Although the law permits Strohfus to market "hemp steak," commercial sale of the product has yet to gain legal footing.

"We can't market to Land O' Lakes, who I've been basically all but lighting myself on fire outside their door and jumping up and down to say, 'I need you guys to be interested in this because you're a leader in the industry,'" Strohfus said.

Strohfus also said he encouraged legislation that would shift cannabidiol from a Schedule I classification, requiring a prescription, to a nutraceutical on par with dietary supplements.

The product doesn't contain THC, the intoxicating component in marijuana, but can be used to treat issues like inflammation, anxiety and muscle tension.

Rep. Tony Jurgens, a Cottage Grove Republican who was serves on the House Agriculture Finance Committee, said he would work with Strohfus to schedule legislative hearings on Strohfus' concerns.

Jurgens also said he hopes to spread more awareness of about industrial hemp, as well as the differences between the crop and marijuana.

"The word around the nation is that Minnesota is really a leader when it comes to food resources, and I think this is just another product on top of soybean production, pork production and corn production," he said. "Now we have hemp production in there as well and Minnesota can really be a nation-wide leader."

Jurgens was among a group of House agriculture committee members to tour farms in Dakota County last week, including Finance Chair Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, Policy Chair Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, and Reps Karen Clark, D-Minneapolis, Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, and John Poston, R-Lake Shore.

The team also toured the Hmong American Farmer Association farm in Hastings.

The 150-acre farm connects Minnesota's Hmong community with long-term, five-acre plot leases to grow nearly 160 different kinds of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

HAFA Executive Director Pakou Hang said that although the Hmong community is culturally tied to farming, Hmong Minnesotans often struggle to gain access to land, training and equipment.

By including HAFA farmers in the organization's food hub, which supplies produce to schools and retailers throughout the Twin Cities, Hang said Hmong farmers have been able to more than double their earnings per acre.

Hang emphasized the role state, federal and private grants have made to fund innovative additions to the farm like a new beekeeping operation or equipment like ground tillers.

"When I think about how long Hmong farmers have been farming in Minnesota since the 80s— and they were really stagnant at $5,000— I just thought what a wonder investments can make to a family's income," she said.

Jurgens said the HAFA's collaborative approach to farming exemplifies "the Minnesota way."

"They talk about properties and partnerships with other organizations, whether it's Hmong farmers or other groups," he said. "That's what I'm getting out of this is how everyone seems to rely on and help each other."