Farmers facing low prices and mired in trade uncertainty see hemp as the next big cash crop, but a Kentucky veteran of six hemp harvests warned it’s a demanding plant to produce.
“Enter hemp with extreme caution,” Brian Furnish told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
Furnish and his brothers started raising hemp under a provision Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got included in the 2014 farm bill. The provision allowed states to approve pilot programs under strict control because at the time hemp fell under the Controlled Substances Act along with its cousin, marijuana. Hemp was treated the same as marijuana although it has a lower concentration of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.
In those years, Furnish said he’s dealt with weeds overtaking his hemp plants, limited options for seed that does well in Kentucky and the trial and error of figuring out the best time to put hemp seed in the ground. He told the committee in the early years he once replanted a hemp field seven times before he got plants. Furnish said Kentucky acreage planted to hemp has grown from 33 in 2014 to 60,000 today.
In the 2018 farm bill, McConnell, a Senate Agriculture Committee member, got provisions through that removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, making legal the widespread production of the plant for oil, fiber and dietary supplements. Products from hemp grown in countries where cultivation of the plant has long been legal fill many store shelves in the U.S.
McConnell made a rare appearance Thursday to introduce Furnish and to say he hoped a new generation of Kentucky farmers will find hemp as lucrative as tobacco once was. He said 200 processors in the state are able to turn the hemp crop into products and that 101 of the state’s 120 counties now grow hemp.
“This was an extraordinary development that we’re all excited about in last year’s farm bill. It’s created incredible excitement across my state,” McConnell said.
But he acknowledged there are still hurdles. The Agriculture Department’s interim final rules governing hemp production, which will still be overseen and licensed by states, are undergoing interagency review with an expected release in the fall for a 2020 crop. Crop insurance written specifically for the risks of growing hemp is probably several years away.
The EPA has begun the review that is expected to lead eventually to approval of pesticides and herbicides to control pests and weeds that can destroy a crop.
The Food and Drug Administration’s work to determine if hemp cannabidiol, an extract from the hemp flower that is commonly referred to as CBD, can be safely used a health product or a food addictive is being closely watched. CBD is a premium product and the reason many farmers are interested in raising hemp.
Amy P. Abernethy, the FDA deputy principal commissioner, said the agency has approved a drug with CBD as an active ingredient for two rare and severe pediatric conditions. The agency has not found any substantial clinical research to back claims that CBD can cure cancer or treat Alzheimer’s disease, Abernethy said.
FDA rule-making can take three to five years, but Abernethy said her agency is exploring ways to protect the public’s health while also speeding up its process to address the flood of consumer products on the market.
Darrell G. Seki Sr., chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota, told the committee his tribal members are ready to produce hemp and accept the uncertainties that will come with the crop. Seki said his tribe is located 250 miles from Minneapolis in a rural and isolated part of the state where the unemployment rate is 40 percent. Hemp, he said, could bring jobs.
But Seki said the 2014 farm bill gave state governments a head start in the industry by giving them authority to launch pilot projects. Tribal governments, which are sovereign entities, were not authorized under the 2014 law to regulate hemp projects and are at a disadvantage, he said.
The 2018 farm bill put tribal governments on par with states, but he said tribes want the Agriculture Department to consult with them about several areas in the law that are murky or ill-defined. He said the USDA’s timetable for getting hemp regulations in place seems to be slipping, putting tribes even further behind.
“If tribes had always been on the same footing with states in terms of growing and regulating industrial hemp, this regulatory delay would merely be a source of frustration. Instead it poses a serious threat to competitive tribal agribusiness,” Seki said.