PORTLAND — New rules for growing and testing hemp are coming this fall from the USDA, and that has farmers anxious about establishing consistent standards for the booming crop.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the agency expects to issue regulations in the next two to four weeks.
Hemp was decriminalized in the 2018 Farm Bill thanks to legislation sponsored by Wyden, fellow Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Wyden addressed the state of the hemp industry during a panel discussion Aug. 19 at the Western U.S. Hemp Growers Conference and Expo in Portland. He said Oregon is “at the epicenter of the enormous potential for the hemp in the country.”
“We have an enormous sense of pride with the incredible growth in this industry, virtually overnight,” Wyden said.
Since 2014, the state has gone from 13 registered hemp growers and 105 acres to 1,883 growers and roughly 62,000 acres, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 that passed Congress with bipartisan support — led by unlikely allies in Wyden, Merkley and McConnell — classified hemp as an agricultural commodity.
“I think it’s pretty obvious you are on the right side of history,” Wyden told the crowd gathered for the conference. “You don’t have thousands of farmers moving into this space for nothing.”
Hemp, like marijuana, is a cannabis plant, though it legally contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main ingredient that gets users high.
While hemp fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, clothing and building materials such as “hempcrete,” the current primary market is for products containing a derivative extract known as cannabidiol, or CBD. Companies are putting CBD in everything from cosmetics to beverages, touting numerous benefits.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is now developing a program to implement the Hemp Farming Act, which requires states and tribes as the primary regulators of hemp to comply with federal standards for testing THC levels, inspecting farms and monitoring overall production.
States will submit their detailed plans for approval once the regulations are announced, going into effect for the 2020 planting season.
Sunny Summers, cannabis policy coordinator for ODA, said Oregon already does testing and tracks production under the state’s hemp pilot program. Such pilot programs were permitted by the 2014 Farm Bill.
“This is not anything new,” Summers said. “We should be setting the standard for the country.”
The goal, Summers said, is to begin treating hemp the same as any other crop. But she said the industry still has challenges ahead, pointing to issues such as the potential for cross-pollination of crops, pesticide drift and managing odor.
“Coexistence is the backbone of Oregon agriculture,” Summers said. “The industry is going to have to come together and find those opportunities to coexist.”
Courtney Moran, a hemp lobbyist and president of the Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association, said the USDA rules should clarify uncertainties for hemp growers and producers around interstate commerce, banking, crop insurance and law enforcement.
“No matter where you’re going, we want to make sure crops are legal and compliant,” Moran said.
The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating and classifying CBD products. Wyden said he was told that could take three to five more years, which he pushed back against forcefully.
The government is starting to make progress implementing the Hemp Farming Act, Wyden said, but needs to move faster.
“CBD products have enormous potential. And that was the whole purpose of the bill,” Wyden said. “We don’t want to see that potential squelched because the feds are moving too slowly.”