CA hemp farming: ‘It’s the Wild West’

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By Ching Lee
California Farm Bureau

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the commercial production of industrial hemp in the U.S., but some California farmers looking to plant the crop this season may need to hold off on their plans.

Already, some two dozen counties have either established temporary moratoriums on hemp cultivation or are in the process of doing so, due to slow rollout of state regulations, said Rick Gurrola, Tehama County agricultural commissioner, who serves on the state Industrial Hemp Advisory Board.

“It’s the Wild West out there right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, the cart is so far before the horse.”

Even before passage of the 2018 Farm Bill—which removed industrial hemp from a federal list of illegal controlled substances and redefined it as an agricultural commodity—the federal government has allowed industrial-hemp research since 2014. The state approved commercial production after the passage of Senate Bill 566 in 2013 and clarification in Proposition 64, the 2016 voter initiative that also legalized recreational marijuana in California. Since then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has been developing regulations to carry out the law.

“Everybody is clamoring, thinking that they can start growing (hemp), and we’re nowhere near having regulations in place to allow that,” Gurrola said.

The state’s first regulation dealing with grower registration for commercial industrial hemp production and registration fees—set at $900 per site per year—has yet to be approved by the Office of Administrative Law. The comment period for the proposed regulation ends April 14.

Regulations dealing with sampling and testing protocols for hemp also have not been established, and they are “gravely needed,” Gurrola said. By law, industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.

With the approval of a registration fee, however, it is unclear whether the approval of the sampling and testing protocols is necessary before county agricultural commissioners can begin to register growers and plantings can begin, said Taylor Roschen, a policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Until all regulatory procedures are in place, county agricultural commissioners—who will handle registration, fee collection, sampling, testing and destruction of the crop if it tests above the allowable THC threshold—remain in limbo.

For this reason, Gurrola said Tehama County is among those that have decided to place a temporary moratorium on industrial hemp production until all regulatory issues can be ironed out.

San Joaquin County became one of the latest to enact a temporary prohibition. Kamal Bagri, the county’s assistant agricultural commissioner, said the county approved a 45-day ban on commercial hemp cultivation late last month and will likely extend it into September, with the hope there will be state regulations by then.

Timing of registration will be critical, Roschen said, as growers determine whether they can plant this year or will wait until 2020.

Industrial hemp is not marijuana, although they’re both members of the cannabis family of plants. To the untrained eye, hemp and marijuana look almost identical—and smell similar, too—especially when they are grown for cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound in cannabis that’s being marketed for its health benefits and pharmaceutical uses. The key difference between the two is that industrial hemp must contain no more than 0.3% THC.

Hemp advocates point to myriad potential uses for the plant—not just as a pharmaceutical but as an oilseed used in foods, beverages and personal-care products, and as a fiber used in paper, textile and manufacturing goods.

“Right now, the big craze is CBD, but I think five, 10 years down the road, the fiber is going to explode, making lumber-type products,” said Sierra Valley farmer Dave Roberti, who harvested his first hemp crop last year as part of a research project with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Bagri described interest in hemp cultivation in her county as “very high,” noting that the office receives at least a handful of calls each week from would-be growers, asking about the status of registration and when they could start growing it.

In Fresno County, there’s been no talk of a moratorium on hemp production at this time, said Rusty Lantsberger, the county’s deputy agricultural commissioner. As to how the county will handle sampling and testing the crop once grower registration is allowed, but in the absence of state regulations, he said “that’s something we have to figure out.”

He said he fields at least eight to 10 calls a week from people interested in growing hemp. But with no provisions in place to test their crop, Lantsberger said growers are taking “a big risk” by growing it, even if the county could register them at this point.

“We are really in a gray area,” he said. “We do not want to stop growers. They’re looking at this as diversifying their portfolio. But on the other hand, we’re put in a really tough spot because we are not being told exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.”

With more than 2,500 farmers in Stanislaus County, about half of whom grow almonds, Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire said he’s seen “moderate” interest in industrial hemp, although he noted the level of interest spiked after passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Before that, hemp inquiries centered on those who wanted to grow it as part of a research program.

Unlike other county agricultural commissioners and law enforcement officials who have pushed for hemp moratoriums until state regulations are fully in place, O’Haire said he has not weighed in on the issue. The county so far has not enacted a ban, and O’Haire said he has not heard that such a proposal is in the works. Like Lantsberger, O’Haire said he has cautioned inquiring growers that without state regulations, he cannot guarantee their crop will be tested, which is required if they want to harvest it and bring it to market.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected])

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