New federal hemp cultivation rules set for March rollout

Recognizing a budding industry, the federal government has established new hemp rules for cultivators that are due to take effect March 22.

Local governments like Solano County — which just passed an ordinance in December ending its moratorium on hemp — may now see its growers gain more flexibility in tending to their crops. Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties have already allowed for the practice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Jan. 17 a list of finalized regulations, after receiving input from industry stakeholders.

“It’s a good start,” said Benjamin Goldstein, the dean of agriculture at Santa Rosa Junior College, where hemp crops are a part of the 365-acre campus farm situated near Riverfront Regional Park. The farm is used for educational programs, and hemp is harvested for oil in a variety of strains.

A cannabis product, hemp may be used to make paper, cloth, rope, fabric and building materials. The whole plant can create fuel. Hemp lacks the intoxication properties like marijuana if consumed.

According to the new USDA rules, the hemp’s federal statute increases the level of allowed THC from 0.3% to now 1%, a concession to avert growers who were eradicating plants when that level exceeds what’s allowed.

Hemp Agriculture Program Coordinator George Sellu said the best concession contained in the new rules is expanding the window of time the sampling of hemp plants are required to test in. The time for growers to do so has doubled from 15- to 30 days. The extension prevents the continued backlogs of cultivators waiting for testing at the labs.

“This removes the bottleneck for testing,” he said.

The USDA maintained a hard line in some areas of the new guidelines. The feds are still requiring pre-harvest samples come from cannabis flower and not the whole plant, which is an easier process, growers say.

It will also be mandatory for hemp to be tested only at laboratories certified by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, a probable source of anxiety for even legal cannabis operations, growers say. This controversial rule won’t be enforced Dec. 31, 2022 though.

Solano County Agricultural Commissioner Ed King applauded the USDA’s “positive back-and-forth” process to get the rules to where they are today as examples of listening to industry stakeholders.

“The 15 days (for testing) was too confining for us. That was a non-starter,” King said, speaking about the industry in the area. “It’s much more realistic now.”

Since the Solano County Board of Supervisors passed its regulations allowing for hemp farming in a designated area, no applicants have come forward, King indicated. But he expects some to emerge, based on the potential for an industry valued in the billions of dollars.

“At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers, and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets,” former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement on the new rules.

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