*This story has been updated to reflect a USDA clarification that tribes are allowed to grow hemp only under the 2014 Farm Bill if they're in a "partnership or contract with an institution of higher education or a State department of agriculture."
Despite the cold, wet spring and a late planting season, once again there is a hemp crop growing in the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Alex White Plume has been raising hemp for years, but this is his first since the federal government legalized industrial hemp production.
It’s the fourth day without rain and finally the soil here is dry enough for planting. Alex White Plume and his grandchildren are putting in the first of his hemp crop. He’s been experimenting with it for nearly two decades. This year, he’ll use plants already started from seed.
“We usually like to grow from seed,” White Plume says. “But seed takes about 120 days from the time you put it in the ground to the time it’s mature. Clones only take 45 days. So, this year, we could salvage this growing season by cloning.”
Behind him stands a tipi made from hemp textiles—a testament to the utility of the plant. Wounded Knee Creek rolls lazily past.
About a dozen workers install drip irrigation lines on a freshly tilled acre and a half plot. White Plume says last year he was only able to get an 80 percent yield on his hemp crop. With an irrigation line he’s hoping for 100 percent.
“It’s going to be a good field,” White Plume says. “It looks beautiful and healthy. The ground is black and rich.”
White Plume says the soil in this area has given him successful hemp yields in the past. But it also shows the history of his foray into hemp farming. Around this same field, wild hemp has sprouted, a product of a federal crop seizure nearly 20 years ago. Days from harvesting his crop, drug agents came and took his hemp away. Drug Enforcement Agents say he did not have the necessary registration. Since then, he needs to pull the wild seedlings to make sure they don’t pollinate the female plants.
“Hemp is the new buffalo, I say. We used to use all parts of the buffalo in the past,” White Plume says. “Today, we’re going to use all parts of the industrial hemp to make a life toward the future.”
Different hemp varieties can produce different products, but this year, White Plume says he’s planting for CBD oil. It’s a compound that’s become popular because of its perceived health benefits. Some people say it helps reduce anxiety and pain. Last week, the FDA held it’s first hearings to regulate CBD oil. It’s one of a number of products made from industrial hemp, which is a cousin to marijuana.
Earlier this year, White Plume partnered with a Boulder, Colorado based company called Evo Hemp, known for it’s edible hemp bars and cooking oil.
White Plume says he’s stepping aside as a farmer and moving in to the production side of the business. He plans a start-to-finish operation that will process, bottle, seal, and sell the CBD oil.
“This is going to be all Lakota hemp, grown on Lakota [land], produced by Lakota, and we’re going to market it by Lakota,” White Plume says. “That’s my goal. I’m reaching my goal now. I’m just happy, I’m elated by this whole thing.”
White Plume grows industrial hemp because the tribe approved hemp cultivation two decades ago. That’s not the case for farmers in other parts of the state.
The 2018 Farm Bill gives states the opportunity to prop up industrial hemp programs—legalizing the plant. But in South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature to do just that.
Governor Noem was not available to comment on this story. But, in her veto letter, Noem said, “South Dakota must stand as an example for the rest of the country, not simply go along with others. Our focus must be on leading for South Dakota’s next generation. Our state is not yet ready for industrial hemp.”
Noem sites challenges for law enforcement and concerns over a lack of FDA approval of the CBD compound for therapeutic use.
The Pine Ridge Reservation falls within state boundaries, and a recent USDA clarification states that the 2018 farm bill doesn't change the law for "Indian tribes, individuals, and entities located in States that do not permit hemp production are ineligible to participate in the growing or cultivation of hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill program."
That's because the USDA has yet to write the rules for industrial hemp production under the new farm bill.
Further, the USDA says, "The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes State departments of agriculture and institutions of higher education to grow and cultivate hemp for the limited purpose of conducting research under pilot programs. However, the definition of “State” that applies to section 7606 does not include Indian tribes. Indian tribes independently have not been able to initiate their own hemp programs under the 2014 Farm Bill and instead have had to obtain a license or authorization under a state program."
Democratic State Senator Red Dawn Foster represents Pine Ridge in the statehouse. She voted in favor of legalizing an industrial hemp program statewide. She says planting hemp allows the tribe to exert its sovereignty and right to self-determination.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Foster says. “It may be a great opportunity for economical development. I’m really glad that as a nation that we are taking these steps to grown hemp and participate in this.”
The hemp market is still very new. That means there are no established prices set for the crop.
Ty Odle owns a hemp processing facility in Hotchkiss, Colorado, called Western Slope Extraction. He says farmers can produce on average 1,000 pounds of dried hemp per acre. He says the typical going rate is anywhere from 20 to 40 bucks a pound, which translates to about 20 to 40 thousand dollars per acre.
Odle says one of the biggest mistakes farmers make is expecting to pull in big money growing just a couple acres of hemp.
“They come into it thinking they’re going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s not there,” Odle says. “I always tell people, ‘Think realistic. Don’t get your hopes up too high.’ But it’s still good money, in the end. There’s no other crop that can make a farmer this kind of money.”
Back along Wounded Knee Creek, at the Kiza Park Hemp Field, Debra White Plume—Alex’s wife—watches the western sky as some storm clouds look like they’re rolling in.
She says after all these decades the crop with uncertain potential now looks like a solid prospect. White Plume says planting hemp for CBD oil feels peaceful and powerful.
“I’m just happy to be able to do something here on our land that doesn’t require pesticides and chemicals and all of the contaminants,” Debra says. “So, for me it’s a really happy day and I’m thankful we’re here as a family.”
She says she’s happy she’ll have young grandchildren who will carry this way of life into the future.