RAY, N.D. -- Wayne Hauge walks across his farmstead to the field where he plans to one day plant his first crop of industrial hemp. His farm, RBJ Farms Inc., named after his grown sons Raymond, Brandon and Jordan, was worked by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him.

He comes to the field, a parcel of the windswept, semi-arid cropland so common in western North Dakota. Small grains, including the wheat crop he harvested this fall, normally grow there.

"I think it (hemp) will do well here," he says. "It should be a good fit."

He pauses and says, "2016 is probably too soon (to plant it for the first time). A lot more research is still needed. But 2017 -- that's possible."

The additional time might allow answers to crucial questions, including the best variety to plant and where to sell the harvested crop.

Hauge shakes his head, with the air of a man making an argument he's made many times before. "When you look at all the uses for it, there's no reason we shouldn't be growing it," he says. "This country is importing it from Canada, when we should be growing it ourselves."

For decades, hemp -- treated as a dangerous drug by law enforcement -- has been maligned and banned in the U.S. But to Hauge and other supporters, including a wide range of influential farm groups, industrial hemp is a versatile, valuable crop that's been unfairly lumped together with marijuana, its so-called "bad cousin." They say you could smoke an entire field of industrial hemp without getting high, and stress the U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn't allow its production.

Hauge -- a father of three, grandfather of four, semi-retired accountant and lifelong farmer whose droll humor often is aimed at himself -- might seem an unlikely crusader. But since 2007, he's been on a mission, which included high-profile court challenges to change federal drug policies that effectively prevent him and other U.S. farmers from growing industrial hemp, even though industrial hemp grown in Canada is imported and processed here.

Hauge and other U.S. industrial hemp supporters haven't won yet. They're making important progress, though.

Until last year, growing hemp wasn't allowed without a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration -- and DEA's last such permit, for a quarter-acre experimental plot in Hawaii, expired in 2003.

But the 2014 farm bill allows states that have legalized hemp to set up pilot growing programs. Thirteen of the 23 states in which hemp is legal have such programs already, and supporters are working to establish them in other states, too.

North Dakota and Montana have pilot growing programs. Minnesota state legislators approved creating one.

And in what would be a bigger, overarching win for supporters, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015, which the U.S. Congress is now considering and enjoys bipartisan support, would lift all federal restrictions on growing hemp and remove its classification as a controlled substance.

"We need to get it totally legal on the federal level," says Zev Paiss, executive director of the National Hemp Association, based in Boulder, Colo.

Even so, industrial hemp continues to face major challenges. To critics, the crop is too much like marijuana and allowing its production would be risky.

"I think it's a social push to get everyone to be accepting of marijuana," says Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican state senator from Alexandria, Minn., and former sheriff. "Industrial hemp is a baby step. I'm not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but there are those out there would think we should legalize illegal drugs, and I truly think this is just a movement in that direction."

The DEA, for its part, tried to obstruct state efforts even after the farm bill authorized industrial hemp farming last year. In May 2014, the DEA seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds from Italy and China intended for pilot farming projects in Kentucky. The seeds were released after the state's agriculture commissioner took legal action.

DEA officials in Washington, D.C., declined comment for this article, except to say their agency implements, rather than sets, policy. They also provided the agency's official statement on hemp and the farm bill, which says only that the farm bill doesn't allow production or distribution of a derivative of marijuana known as "Charlotte's Web."

Some state and local law enforcement officials continue to oppose legalizing hemp at the state level, although the opposition isn't as strong as it once was, hemp supporters say.

Supporters also say their efforts, at both the state and national levels, are handicapped by confusion among the general public. Medical marijuana is particularly problematic, even though supporters stress that it's separate and distinct from industrial hemp.

"Industrial hemp is a crop. Medical marijuana is a drug," Paiss says.

No go so far in SD

South Dakota is among the states where hemp supporters have struggled to gain traction.

"Too many people just don't understand," says Elizabeth May, a Republican state representative and rancher from Kyle, S.D. "That's been our biggest obstacle. They relate it to marijuana, and marijuana is just so controversial. But industrial hemp isn't a drug crop."

She was a leader in the unsuccessful effort earlier this year to win legislative approval of a state pilot program. She's uncertain why her state failed, while legislators in adjacent North Dakota -- which, like South Dakota, depends heavily on agriculture -- gave their official OK this spring. But she plans to reintroduce pro-hemp legislation when the South Dakota Legislature meets again, and hopes to enlist the help of North Dakota hemp supporters.

Industrial hemp might hold the greatest promise for regions such as western South Dakota, where May lives, that don't get a lot of precipitation.

"But farmers all over the state of South Dakota have told me they'd love to grow it as a rotational crop," she says. "I think it would be a great alternative."

Progress in Minnesota

Minnesota hemp supporters have enjoyed some success, but not as much as they'd like.

State legislators passed a law in June, which, tying into the 2014 farm bill, opened the door to limited research and directs the state Department of Agriculture to write rules for hemp production and licensing. Though research has begun, officials say they won't permit cultivation unless the federal government allows it to be grown for more than research purposes.

"I wish it could go a little faster," says State Sen. Kent Eken a Democrat from Twin Valley, who led state efforts to win approval for the pilot program. "At the same time, I understand why they don't want to run into problems down the road. But I hope by next year we can get something going."

The crop would be especially popular in northwest Minnesota, where the soil and climate favor it, but farmers statewide could benefit from it, says Eken, who's from the northwest part of the state.

"It may be the most versatile crop out there," he says. "Making paper, clothes, insulation, medicine, biofuels -- there are all kinds of purposes for which this crop can be used."

But hemp suffers because some people confuse it with marijuana. "We have to distinguish it (hemp) from its cousin," Eken says. "I liken it to throwing someone in jail because they have a cousin, who they closely resemble, who did something wrong."

Minnesota isn't alone. Ten of the 23 states that have legalized hemp apparently won't set up pilot programs until the federal government removes all restrictions on growing it, which makes passage of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 even more important, Paiss says.

Pilot programs

Montana and North Dakota are among the 13 states with pilot growing programs. The programs vary, sometimes greatly, from state to state, and are difficult to summarize, though all seek to provide farmers with at least some of the information and other support needed to raise hemp, according to information on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

To further complicate matters, programs in some of the 13 states have run into snags. For instance, the Oregon Department of Agriculture -- citing "lack of clarity in the current statute and policy concerns" -- announced late this past summer it won't issue new licenses to produce or handle industrial or new seed production permits for the remainder of 2015.

In any case, Montana's pilot program seems well-received among growers, who could be planting industrial hemp in 2016, says Cort Jensen, Montana Agriculture Department attorney and its point man on industrial hemp.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture is developing its pilot program and working with growers, says Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring, who thinks hemp could be planted in the state as soon as 2016.

"We're open for business, so to speak," he says.

Though several North Dakota farmers have expressed interest in industrial hemp, "We need to find out how truly interested they are," Goehring says. "We've been talking the talk (about growing industrial hemp) for quite some time. Now we have the chance to actually do it. I'm excited to see what happens."

'A matter of pride'

Hauge has wanted to grow industrial hemp since 2007, when he came across a news report that North Dakota was granting state licenses to raise it.

"It just seemed so obvious to me that this crop would be a good fit in western North Dakota and that we should have the option of being able to grow it," he says.

Hemp could provide relatively high profits, at least in some years, and raising it in a rotation with other crops could improve soil health and fight weeds, insects and crop disease, he says.

But the DEA didn't approve those 2007 applications from Hauge and Dave Monson, an Osnabrock, N.D., farmer and state legislator who also wanted to raise industrial hemp.

Hauge and Monson, with help from Vote Hemp, the lobbying arm of the hemp industry, challenged the DEA in court, and lost.

The case drew national attention, including an article in the New York Times with the headline, "Sober North Dakotans Hope to Legalize Hemp."

But Hauge was determined to keep going, despite the setbacks.

"I don't like to quit until something is done," he says, noting that he sometimes stays up all night to finish planting a field if conditions allow.

Raising hemp in North Dakota is "a matter of pride," too, he says.

He hoped the state -- which leads the nation in production of a number of crops, including flax, barley, durum and canola -- would become the leader in hemp, as well.

So he's disappointed that a few other states, especially Colorado and Kentucky, have made more progress, at least so far, in developing industrial hemp.

And he's pragmatic enough to want answers -- "What varieties would be best? How to market it? There are still a lot of questions" -- before he plants the crop himself.

But he's confident it's just a matter of time until hemp is growing on this windswept North Dakota field.

"I don't know yet it if will be 2016 or 2017," he says. "But I know it will happen."

Nothing new about this crop

Few Americans know much about industrial hemp -- and what they think they know isn't always accurate. Here are the basics of this little-known, often misunderstood crop:

• It can be grown as fiber, seed or a dual-purpose crop. The interior of the stalk has short, woody fibers called hurds; the outer portion has exceptionally strong and durable "bast" fibers. Seeds are smooth and one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch long.

• Its uses include food, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, fabrics, paper and construction and insulation materials, among many others. Global market is estimated at more than 25,000 products.

• The U.S. sales value of hemp-based products is pegged at nearly $600 million annually and growing.

• Virtually all hemp processed in the U.S. is imported, primarily from Canada and China.

• Hemp grows in a wide variety of climates and soil types. The biggest advantage for farmers could be that it grows rapidly and chokes out competing weeds.

• It was widely grown in the U.S. from colonial times into the mid 19th century. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

• It was treated the same as any other farm commodity by the U.S. Department of Agriculture well into the 20th century. U.S. Department of Agriculture compiled statistics on hemp and helped farmers grow and distribute it.

• U.S. production peaked in World War II, when supply of imported industrial fibers needed for rope and other wartime products was largely cut off.

• Production plunged after World War II because of new anti-drug laws and competition from synthetic fibers.

• Until recently, U.S. drug laws made growing hemp virtually impossible for U.S. farmers.

• The 2014 U.S. farm bill encourages state-level activity to promote hemp production. Some states, including North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, have to varying degrees taken action already.

• Marijuana and hemp come from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa, but from different varieties or cultivars. They have a similar leaf shape, so the two are frequently confused. Hemp is genetically different, however, and has extremely low levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

• Marijuana and hemp can't be grown near each other. The hemp plant will cross-pollinate the marijuana, greatly reducing the latter's THC level and potency.

Testing ground

LANGDON, N.D. -- A tiny plot of farmland at a research station in northern North Dakota could contribute to big things for farmers across the nation.

"We're just in the beginning, learning how to grow this crop for farmers," says Bryan Hanson, a research agronomist.

Hanson is among the scientists who studied industrial hemp at the North Dakota State University Langdon Research Extension Center this summer. Twelve varieties of hemp -- six from Canada, five from France and one from Australia -- were planted on two plots totaling 0.2 acres.

Hanson and other researchers want to gain practical insights that will help North Dakota farmers efficiently and profitably raise this little-known crop. The 2014 federal farm bill encourages hemp production and action by the North Dakota Legislature this spring removes some of the legal obstacles to raising it.

North Dakota farmers grow many crops, and NDSU researchers are involved with most of them, university officials say.

"This (industrial hemp) isn't any different than any other crop that comes in," says Ken Grafton, dean of the NDSU College of Agriculture, Food systems and Natural Resources. "This is a new crop in North Dakota, even though it was grown in the war years (World War II)."

NDSU research helped develop dry beans, canola and sunflowers, which are now prominent in the state, when they were first introduced in North Dakota, he says.

The Langdon center was picked to study industrial hemp because it's close to Canada, where industrial hemp has been researched and grown since the 1990s. The ongoing research at Langdon could eventually expand to other NDSU extension centers, Grafton says.

Hanson says he and other Langdon scientists have visited industrial hemp plots in Canada and enjoy a good relationship with Canadian researchers.

Several U.S. ag researchers from outside North Dakota, in turn, have visited Langdon to learn more about the crop.

"We still know so little about hemp; we're not experts (in Langdon)," Hanson says. "But when a crop is this new, you don't have to know much to be considered an expert."

The Langdon researchers are studying different varieties, planting dates and seeding rates -- the sort of basic information that would-be industrial hemp growers need.

"It's a learning curve all around, finding out how we can make it work for North Dakota producers," says Hanson, who notes that Langdon scientists are working with the state Department of Agriculture, which also has a key role in hemp development under the 2014 farm bill.

The six Canadian varieties were harvested after Forum News Service visited the test plots in September. Results, which are still being evaluated, are encouraging. The French varieties, planted later, haven't been harvested. The Australian variety appears to have been planted too late in the growing season to develop properly and might not be harvested at all, Hanson says.

Research into new crops isn't always successful, but even failures provide experience and information that ultimately can help farmers, Hanson says.

"This crop is so new that we don't know much about it yet," he says. "We'll need time (for more research). But we know it will give farmers another option."

Potential limited

Industrial hemp's prospects are bright, supporters say, but even they doubt it will rival corn, wheat or soybeans anytime soon.

"It's not like corn," says Ray, N.D., farmer Wayne Hauge, a longtime industrial hemp proponent. "There aren't going to be millions of acres of hemp. But it can be a viable rotational crop for some people."

Farmers typically rotate the crops they plant on a field from year to year. Doing so helps fight weeds, insects and crop disease and conserves moisture, among other benefits. The opportunity to add industrial hemp to crop rotations would give farmers another option; hemp's biggest attraction might be that it grows quickly and chokes out competing weeds. That should be particularly appealing to organic farmers, though producers who utilize conventional practices could take advantage, too, experts say.

Potentially higher per-acre profits from industrial hemp also will appeal to farmers, especially since the price of mainstream crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans has plunged. But so little is known about possible markets for hemp that it's difficult to estimate how profitable hemp might be.

Even so, hard-pressed farmers need the option of growing hemp, says Zev Paiss, executive director of the National Hemp Association, based in Boulder, Colo.

For now, however, hemp's role in U.S. and world agriculture is tiny, almost microscopic.

Worldwide, about 200,000 acres of hemp were planted in 2011, with China and Canada accounting for much of that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To put that in perspective, consider that about 100 million acres of corn are grown annually just in the U.S. -- 500 times more than all the hemp planted worldwide. And the 200,000 hemp acres worldwide are only half of the 390,000 acres of flax planted this spring in North Dakota, the nation's dominant producer.

This year, U.S. farmers planted about 6,000 acres of hemp, with Colorado (2,000 acres) and Kentucky and Tennessee (1,000 acres each) leading the way, Paiss estimates.

Planted acres will increase substantially as states pass new laws encouraging hemp production and U.S. manufacturers, now using limited supplies of imported hemp, take advantage of hemp produced here, he says.

Ultimately, as manufacturers make greater use of hemp and U.S. farmers raise more of it, the crop's role will grow, Paiss and other supporters say.

"I don't want to give it too much of a magical quality," he says. "But I'm amazed by all the potential uses for it. You can make pretty much anything from it except for glass or steel."