SPRINGFIELD, Colo. — Out near a lonely highway southwest of town, a farmer's son stuck some seeds in the ground last spring to see what would happen. What he pulled from the soil made history and has sown new hope for struggling farmers both here and across the nation.
Last weekend, 41-year-old Ryan Loflin, a fifth-generation Coloradan, along with an enthusiastic crew of 45 volunteers, harvested what is being called the first U.S. crop of commercial hemp in more than half a century.
Hemp is the mild-mannered sister of marijuana, springing from the same tall, leafy plant family. Although it is often mistaken for its more potent sibling, hemp has only a tiny trace of the buzz-worthy chemical THC found in marijuana. Highly marketable, hemp's seeds, roots, stalks, fibers and oil are used for products including soap, clothing and construction materials. A company in Boulder even sells hemp ice cream.
It grows easily here, needing less water in this flatland of drought and wind. Loflin's father, John, has made his living coaxing corn, wheat and alfalfa from the soil since the 1950s. Over the years he has watched the hard life take its toll as storefronts shuttered on Main Street and families moved away. The population here is about 1,500, down nearly 1,000 from a generation ago.
"This could be the miracle crop we have been waiting for," the elder Loflin says.
There is just this one pesky problem: Like marijuana, hemp is illegal. At least so says the federal government.
"According to the Controlled Substances Act, there is no differentiation between marijuana and hemp," says Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. She says the federal law banning the two plants has been on the books since it was signed by President Nixon in 1970.
Last year things got tricky. Colorado, along with Washington state, legalized recreational marijuana. When a state law conflicts with a federal law, the feds win. But in the case of small-scale marijuana use, federal authorities have been advised to back off, letting local jurisdictions handle the issue through regulation, according to a recent Justice Department memo.
Hemp was legalized under Colorado's Amendment 64, but more as an afterthought, says Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a national advocacy group. State lawmakers were directed to come up with a plan to regulate hemp farming, and that authority was given to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
"It should not be treated like a drug, it should be treated like corn," says state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat and chair of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
For years hemp was widely grown in this country, even promoted by the government during World War II. But it eventually fell out of favor, and the last known commercial harvest was in Wisconsin in 1957.
Colorado's rules for hemp farming are still being determined and will not go into effect until next year.
Ryan Loflin knows he jumped the gun with his harvest but is unapologetic. "I like to be first," he says. "Someone needs to take this ball and run."
The father of two has never been arrested in his life, and searches for a family-friendly adjective for the federal law equating marijuana with hemp. He settles on "comical."
After Amendment 64 passed, he thought of his father's struggle, knowing hemp could potentially bring three times the profit of wheat. The big problem was — and is — getting hold of the seeds, which are illegal in this country. He is vague about how he was able to smuggle 1,500 pounds of hemp seed from Canada, Europe and China.
Last year he grew about 50 seedlings at his home in Crested Butte. He transplanted them as well as sowing the rest of his seeds on a 60-acre plot in Springfield leased from his father.
As fall approached, Loflin considered harvesting the inaugural crop with a combine but quickly found the machinery chewed up too much of the plant. He decided to go old-fashioned and pick by hand. He put out the word on Twitter and Facebook, and help arrived.
Kay Cee Carson came because she had known Loflin since kindergarten and wanted to be part of what she considers a new national movement. She's still got the blisters. Matt McClain and three others drove 18 hours straight from Los Angeles and camped in tents near the field. His company is launching a hemp clothing line that gets its material from overseas.
"I'm almost 64 years old with a bad back, but I got out there and picked too," says John Loflin. But both father and son admit they are in a trial-and-error phase because no one really knows how to grow hemp anymore in this country.
Today, the harvested hemp sits in a waist-high pile inside a steel barn. The younger Loflin says it is already spoken for by companies wanting to buy it all, root to stem. He is keeping the seeds for next year, hoping to triple his crop. His father fields calls from farmers in their 70s from across the county who thank him, saying they have wanted to plant hemp for years but never had the nerve.
Of course, not everyone is sold. Mayor Dusty Turner worries that his town's growing fame comes at too high a price.
"I don't want to be on the map for anything illegal. Maybe this is the cash crop farmers need. We want economic growth, we want families to move back. It's just we want to make sure when it does happen it's legal."
John Loflin's 94-year-old mother was worried too, but about the pickers smoking the yield.
"Mom, you don't smoke hemp," John remembers telling her.
"Oh," she replied. "Well, then I hope Ryan gets rich."
"Yeah, me too," he said. "Me too."