Ohio getting hemp rules in place for spring planting of new cash crop

Drive through southern Ohio this summer, and you might be surprised to see acres of cannabis plants swaying in the breeze.

These bushy annuals won’t be the kind that produce marijuana. Farmers are hoping to grow hemp, and industry experts think a few thousand acres could be in the ground by spring.

“It’s crazy and exciting and confusing and the whole bit, but I think that comes any time you start planting a new crop,” Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Ty Higgins said.

Hemp has been around for thousands of years, but the federal government had classified it as a Schedule 1 drug alongside its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, until the 2018 federal farm bill became law that December. That redefined cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC (the compound that makes people feel high) as an ordinary agricultural commodity.

State lawmakers and regulators moved surprisingly fast after that, said Tom Haren, vice president of the Ohio Hemp Association.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law last summer to create a hemp licensing program. Then the Ohio Department of Agriculture drafted rules and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval, which was received just as 2019 came to a close. All that’s left to do before the state issues licenses to farmers is for state lawmakers to sign off on the regulations at a Jan. 16 meeting.

“There was candidly a lot of concern that Ohio would lose out on the 2020 growing season just by how long it takes to put rules in place. This is a real testament to the hard work the folks at ODA did,” Haren said. “They really set Ohio up to be what we hope it will be, which is a leader in the hemp industry.”

Most of the U.S. hemp market today centers on products that include a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis plants called cannabidiol, or CBD. People use it to treat a range of conditions, from epilepsy and autism to chronic pain and anxiety. (The Food and Drug Administration has approved only one CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, for one use: the treatment of certain seizures.)

Still, the CBD market is booming, and Brightfield Group, which tracks cannabis markets, predicts it will reach $22 billion by 2022.

Haren said he doesn’t know whether CBD products will remain popular long-term. He thinks industrial hemp is the future for Ohio farmers and processors.

Hemp can be used to make rope, clothing, outdoor gear, paper products, cosmetics and even biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

“Look at all the plastic-bag bans. Why not make an alternative out of hemp?” Haren said. “Every day, I’ve got cardboard boxes outside my door. Why not hemp boxes? It takes weeks to mature versus trees that take years.”

And it’s more profitable to grow. Hemp can be up to four times more profitable than corn or soybeans, which is why, Higgins said, you can’t go to a meeting of Ohio farmers without the subject coming up.

Still, he said, farmers are cautious about saving more than a few acres of their fields for the new crop.

“We don’t know how it grows in Ohio. We don’t know where our market is yet,” Higgins said. “That’s one thing that’s a little different than corn or soybeans.”

Ohio grows about 10 million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat that gets shipped around the globe, but hemp is different.

The market is emerging — especially in America — and processors are still figuring out which varieties of hemp work best for which purposes.

“There’s going to be a lot of trial and error this first year,” Higgins said. “I tell them they should only invest what they are willing to lose when it comes to the 2020 planting season.”

Farmers planting hemp this spring are going to be test cases both for cultivation and regulatory enforcement.

“This is new territory for every state in the nation,” said Dorothy Pelanda, director of the state Agriculture Department.

Ohio, she said, is giving its farmers a license to grow hemp and a database entry that will prove to anyone who pulls them over that the cannabis plants in the back of their truck are, in fact, hemp.

“From the start, we have been working very closely with law enforcement,” Pelanda said. “They’ve traveled to other states so they can learn along with us.”

One idea from Colorado that Pelanda said she’s considering is mandating that hemp processors be bonded. Another idea was to create a list of legal seeds rather than a list of illegal ones.

Julie Doran, founder of the Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative, said the list of allowable seeds is probably going to be too short.

Marijuana and hemp both contain THC, but hemp can’t legally have more than 0.3% THC on a dry-weight basis. It’s like a bottle of nonalcoholic beer: O’Doul’s, for example, contains 0.4% alcohol.

Marijuana’s THC content averages about 9.3%, according to tests by the National Institutes of Health on confiscated cannabis samples from across the country. But states such as Colorado where recreational marijuana is legal have reported strains that tested as high as 28%.

Only a handful of cannabis seeds, Doran said, produce plants with a THC content that meets both state and federal legal maximums for hemp.

“You’re also talking about a plant where you can’t completely control the outcome,” Doran said. “Plants grown in the same field could have different THC contents. Maybe one gets flooded or gets stressed. That THC content could ‘run hot’” — that is, exceed the legal limit.

And anything that tests above the 0.3% limit has to be destroyed.

Doran would like to see a measurement of uncertainty passed by the USDA that would let some plants test up to 1%.

Haren’s concerns are about the law’s 15-day harvest window. Farmers have 15 days to get all their hemp out of the ground once it’s tested. The THC content of cannabis plants varies over time, so federal regulators created this window to make sure that levels don’t increase after testing.

But the 15 days might be too short, given that the period includes the days spent waiting on test results, Haren said.

“You may not want to go through the process and harvest all that product before you’ve got your numbers,” Haren said. “From an industry standpoint, there’s a lot of interest in a longer window.”

The USDA is asking for comment on the 15-day rule, so Haren is optimistic that it could change.

“We’re building a new industry,” he said. “Every decision you make leads to about 20 other questions.”

Source: Anna Staver, The Columbus Dispatch