Hemp rules won’t be sorted out in time for spring planting
By Eric Mortenson
Unresolved complications will prevent Oregon from adopting industrial hemp production rules in time for anyone to plant it this spring, a key member of a state implementation committee says.
Russ Karow, head of the Crop and Soil Science Department at Oregon State University, said legal and infrastructure issues most likely can be resolved, but not before farmers make crop planting choices this spring.
“A major one is, how do we get seed?” Karow said. Oregon growers could get seed from Colorado or Canada, which allow hemp cultivation, but it may not be legal to transport seed across the borders of states that haven’t approved it.
“We may need some federal dispensation to move it across state or national borders,” Karow said.
It’s also unclear whether the Oregon Department of Agriculture has legal authority to collect information from growers as required under state legislation, he said.
Lindsay Eng, the department’s hemp rule coordinator, said program funding from the Legislature also is unsettled. Another issue is the cost of a three-year state growing license, now projected at $5,000 to $7,000 and perhaps out of reach of some potential growers.
Karow said a few small-acreage growers had expressed interest in growing hemp, the stalk and seed of which can be used to make clothing, rope, oils, lotions and food. Larger conventional growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley don’t appear eager to grow it, in part because it would require summer irrigation that might have to be diverted from other crops.
“If you’re on a small scale and have a water supply, you could make it work,” Karow said.
The valley’s cool nights and dry days of summer would hinder production and retting, the rotting process needed to separate hemp fiber. Karow believes the Hermiston and Treasure Valley areas of eastern Oregon would be best for hemp, because they have warmer growing days.
Industrial hemp has an up and down history. It was widely grown and processed in the Midwest through World War II, but faded over time. It’s a cousin of marijuana, but doesn’t have the THC levels that make pot smokers high. Nonetheless, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration classified hemp and marijuana the same, and the Justice Department only recently indicated it won’t prosecute hemp growers in states that have a robust regulatory system.
The feds’ change of heart brings into play a 2009 law passed by the Oregon Legislature. It requires all growers and handlers to get a license from the ag department, and requires hemp fields to be at least 2.5 acres. Ag inspectors would be allowed to take plant samples and test for THC levels. The cropwide average could not exceed .3 percent; pot has THC levels ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent, according to various sources. The advisory committee coordinated by Eng is in the process of drafting rules for hemp production.
Meanwhile, the federal Farm Bill approved by Congress this year allows hemp growing for research by state agriculture departments and universities.