Washington farmers have signed up to plant more than 6,000 acres of hemp this year, joining a national rush just as federal regulators ramp up scrutiny of health claims about the crop’s most popular product, CBD oil.
As of May 21, the state Department of Agriculture had licensed 35 growers, including 21 who obtained a license to also process hemp. Another 20 to 25 applications were waiting to be reviewed, a department spokesman said.
Last year, Washington’s hemp crop was 140 acres cultivated by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northeast Washington.
The year before, the first year growing hemp was legal in Washington, the crop was 175 acres, most of it grown by one Moses Lake farm.
Other states are also reporting expansions. Oregon has licensed 1,342 growers to plant 46,219 acres, a state agriculture department spokeswoman said Tuesday. Last year, Oregonians cultivated 7,808 acres of hemp.
The surge comes after the 2018 Farm Bill took hemp off the federally controlled substances list. Washington lawmakers responded by lifting other state restrictions. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the hemp bill in late April, and the number of licensed hemp farmers approximately doubled over the next two weeks.
“There will be more,” Industrial Hemp Association of Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson said. “I am just completely overwhelmed with everything going on, but at the same time excited.”
For the first time, hemp can be grown in Washington for CBD oil, marketed for pain and stress and illnesses, such as seizures, constipation and cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration has taken note.
The FDA is taking comments on the basis for the claims. The agency isn’t proposing any rule, but says that some claims have gone too far and are violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Comments can be submitted online at regulations.gov until July 2.
Peterson said she doubts FDA skepticism will cool demand. “People have their own specific experiences with it, and that is what’s driving the market,” she said. But she does predict a coming oversupply.
“I’ve been saying that all along. Like with any industry, there will be an over-saturation,” she said.
Farmers are growing for CBD oil because it’s hot, but also because it’s easier to make than products from the plant’s fiber or seeds, she said. “The infrastructure and marketing isn’t there like it is for CBD.”
Elma, Wash., dairy farmer Jay Gordon said he will plant about 3 acres and try growing hemp in southwest Washington’s cooler climate. He said he’s intrigued by the potential health benefits of CBD, though the evidence now is largely anecdotal.
“I don’t think we even know what we don’t know,” said Gordon, who’s also policy director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
Gordon describes his venture as dabbling and that he will plant in a pasture. He said he has buyers lined up, but the rush to grow for CBD oil reminds him of echinacea, a medicinal herb that went through a boom-and-bust cycle in the 1990s.
“There’s a lot of riverboat gambling going on,” he said.
Detailed market information about hemp is not available, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The advocacy group Vote Hemp reports that U.S. farmers planted 78,176 acres of hemp in 2018, compared to 25,713 acres in 2017 and 9,649 acres in 2016.
As of this week, Washington farmers had obtained licenses to plant 6,155 acres. That would have put Washington in the top five hemp-producing states last year behind Montana, Colorado, Oregon and Kentucky.