Thursday was a big day in Fort Benton as the mayor, a U.S. senator, and hemp farmers broke ground on a new facility - the first of its kind in the nation.
Employees of the industrial hemp company IND HEMP were joined by Fort Benton Mayor Rick Morris and Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester for the ceremony, which marked the opening of the nation’s first scaled hemp decortication and fiber processing plant. The Chouteau County town, with around 1,500 residents, gained national attention for the opening event.
“Stuff like this just doesn’t come along for rural Montana,” said Morris. “It’s a big deal for Fort Benton.”
The industrial hemp company is providing dozens of employment opportunities in Fort Benton. Over the next several years, it hopes to center its production in the region and eventually develop a second facility. Together, the plants will support over 30,000 acres of industrial hemp production in the Golden Triangle.
“This is the birthplace of Montana; this could well be the birthplace of hemp processing, which is really good for Montana,” Tester said. “And it’s good for the country.”
The groundbreaking was made possible by the passage of the federal Farm Bill in 2018, which fully legalized the regulated production of industrial hemp at the federal level in the U.S.
Hemp is part of the plant family Cannabis sativa and is related to marijuana, but it’s legal because it doesn’t contain the same levels of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Industrial hemp is a convertible crop used for all sorts of everyday items, like paper products, textile products and plastics.
The U.S. hemp industry has grown considerably since the passage of the 2018 farm bill, but still lags behind Canada’s hemp industry. Hemp farmers in Fort Benton say they’re wary of continued regulation, which they say has inhibited growth relative to Canada’s hemp industry.
As much of the country suffers from the economic blow of the pandemic, Montana’s economy has relied heavily on its relatively stable farming industry to weather the storm. For a rural community like Fort Benton, particularly susceptible to a recession, a new farming commodity could be a breath of fresh air.
“Something that hasn’t existed in this country before, now existing in Fort Benton, is a very good sign,” Tester said.