Could Hemp be an Economic Lifeline for Rural Texas Towns?

As the Legislature considers greenlighting hemp production, a litany of farmers, rural economic development advocates and even conservative Republicans are singing its praises.

“Anything that’s good for the farmers is good for Haskell,” said Jimi Coplen, executive director of the Development Corporation of Haskell.
“Anything that’s good for the farmers is good for Haskell,” said Jimi Coplen, executive director of the Development Corporation of Haskell. Christopher Collins

Haskell, a town of 3,200 an hour north of Abilene, is in high cotton. It has not one, but two grocery stores. Most of the storefronts in the downtown square are occupied by local businesses. U.S. 277, a major highway, runs right by town, and hordes of motorists pull off the road every day to stretch their legs at the gargantuan Stripes gas station. “It’s kind of an unassuming little town, but we’ve got a lot going on,” said Jimi Coplen, executive director of the Development Corporation of Haskell, a small nonprofit similar to a chamber of commerce.

But even in this slice of rural Texas, the problems that have drained or emptied other small towns persist. Haskell County’s population has been stagnant since 2010, and the median household income is $14,000 below the state average. When former Governor Rick Perry was born in Haskell in 1950, the economy boasted more than 1,500 farms. Now it has just 488. To add insult to injury, the town’s Dairy Queen was one of 29 shut down across rural Texas and neighboring states two years ago.

The shuttered Dairy Queen in Haskell.  Christopher Collins

Now a potential new cash crop — hemp —  could give a much-needed boost to local economies and has folks in Haskell and other farming towns in the state buzzing. Hemp and marijuana are the same plant species, but hemp lacks marijuana’s psychoactive properties and can be used to make goods ranging from clothing and paper to building materials and medicine. But there’s a problem: Hemp production remains illegal in Texas, despite Congress deregulating the plant via the Farm Bill last year. That could change this legislative session, as state lawmakers are considering several proposals to legalize farming hemp for the first time in 50 years. The legislation has the support of farmers, rural and community development researchers and advocates, and even conservative Republicans like Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

“Anything that’s good for the farmers is good for Haskell,” Coplen said.

One of the measures moving through the Capitol is House Bill 1325, by Representative Tracy King, a Batesville Democrat. Dozens of farmers, ranchers, hemp proponents and others testified in favor of HB 1325 in a House Agriculture Committee hearing earlier this month. So many people showed up to the usually quiet committee that some attendees were moved to an overflow room; no one testified against the bill. After passing in an 8-0 vote by the ag committee, the proposal is now at the mercy of the House Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda for the lower chamber. Lawmakers have until May 28 to pass legislation.

Bob Avant, a Williamson County farmer who formerly ran the biofuel research program at Texas A&M University, testified in favor of the bill. “I don’t think any one crop will be a panacea for rural Texas,” he later told the Observer. “But anything that can encourage production in the rural areas will encourage people to stay there to begin with and certainly help the local economy.” Jeff Williams, a farmer and rancher in Fort Stockton in far West Texas, said in an interview that hemp could help Texas farmers stave off the fierce economic headwinds that are driving some to bankruptcy. He said the promise of a new cash crop could also be “a good incentive” for high school graduates to stick around instead of moving off to the big city.

hemp
An industrial hemp plant.  Wikimedia

“You just watch. There is going to be more hemp grown [in Texas] than we could ever process,” Sid Miller told a Dallas TV station. The Texas Farm Bureau, a trade group that represents the state’s agricultural producers, has also voiced its support.

The idea that hemp could give rural communities a leg up isn’t outlandish. In Colorado, where 1,000 farmers began growing hemp as part of a 2014 pilot project, the crop now reels in between $100 million and $200 million annually. In Kansas, Governor Jeff Colyer said that the state is planning to build hemp processing facilities, which stand to generate property taxes and jobs. “Having that added value, that’s how you get money into rural Kansas,” Colyer said late last year.

As with any new or revitalized industry, there are some unknowns that can make predicting the viability and profitability of hemp a challenge, according to Rebekka Dudensing, a Texas A&M University professor who helps rural communities develop their economies. She said officials in Haskell and other towns have contacted her to gauge the possibilities. Dudensing told the Observer that hemp’s potential success in rural Texas may hinge on each town’s ability to process the crop locally. After all, cotton, which is Texas’ top cash crop, is usually ginned locally before being shipped elsewhere for further refinement. That means capital infrastructure will likely be needed to get the hemp industry rolling in Texas.

In Haskell, local farmers are excited about the prospect of adding a new crop to their portfolio, said Steve Alsabrook, who grows wheat, cotton and milo on 5,000 acres. “I could really increase the diversity of my farmland [with hemp],” he said. Alsabrook said other area farmers, either tacitly or enthusiastically, have told him they’d give it a shot, too. As for “the old guard” who saw hemp as indistinguishable from marijuana, “they’ve mostly died off,” he said.

But Alsabrook alluded to another cash crop that he and other farmers thought would be a boon for the area: canola. About a decade ago, Texas farmers jumped on the bandwagon to grow the grain, which was touted as a potential new source of biofuel. Alsabrook said the experiment never panned out for him or other Haskell farmers.

But even if hemp production doesn’t end up boosting Haskell’s economy, it’s still an opportunity worth exploring, said Coplen, the local economic development director. “Economic development … is like you’re always going uphill, because it’s hard in a little town. Now we got some momentum going,” she said. “It can’t hurt anything.”

Christopher Collins is an Observer staff writer covering rural Texas. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]

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