Hemp has a long way to go before joining mainstream agriculture, a U.S. Senate committee was told Thursday, even as farmers in Oregon and Washington continue to embrace the plant's new legal status.
Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish said he's learned a lot about hemp the past five years, such as don't believe the hype. The crop can be hard to grow, harvest and sell, he said.
"The reality is you can make a living growing hemp, but you will not become rich growing hemp in one year," he told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
Furnish, several federal officials and a hemp industry representative testified on the challenges hemp growers still face, even though Congress legalized hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill.
The challenges include a lack of certified seeds, approved pesticides and crop insurance, and the uncertain regulatory future of hemp's hottest product, cannabidiol or CBD, marketed as a health supplement.
In the past two weeks, another 124 farmers have registered to grow 4,565 acres of hemp in Oregon, bringing the total to 1,766 growers and 58,438 acres, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The acreage has grown by about 500% over 2018.
In Washington, the number of licensed growers has nearly tripled to 102 in the past two months. Last year, the state had one hemp farm.
The executive director of the National Hemp Association, Erica Stark, said hemp fiber could someday replace plastic or paper in many products, creating a "massive" hemp industry. For now, though, the demand for CBD drives the market, she said.
"The future of that is largely going to depend on how (the Food and Drug Administration) handles this and what kind of regulatory framework we have," she said.
CBD is a non-intoxicating chemical compound made from the flower. The product commonly known as hemp oil is pressed from seeds.
The FDA has sent warning letters to companies marketing CBD for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and opioid withdrawal. The agency a year ago approved CBD to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy.
The FDA reported that three clinical trials found that CBD was more effective in reducing seizures than a placebo. The studies identified side effects, but the agency concluded the benefits outweighed the risks.
"FDA learned that CBD is not a risk-free substance. CBD can harm the liver, create a sense of exhaustion and affect your appetite," said Amy Abernathy, deputy commissioner for Food and Drugs.
There has been an "explosion" of CBD products, such as lotions, gummies and chocolates, she said. The FDA does know not the effects of regularly using these products over a long time without a doctor's supervision, she said. "To our knowledge, the studies haven't been done."
Furnish traced Kentucky's move to hemp to declining demand for tobacco. He said he and other farmers have learned by trial and error. Cutting 23-foot-tall hemp plants was fine after he bought special equipment from Germany and Australia, he said.
"Many farmers have tried to use hay equipment to bale fiber, and it's an absolute disaster," he said.
"I would encourage any farmer who wants to start in this industry to first talk with somebody who's done it for awhile," Furnish said. "By the way, there's no expert in the hemp business because they don't exist."