Federal regulators on Thursday provided a number of hemp updates, and announced two programs aimed at protecting hemp crops from natural disasters.
In a call with reporters, Farm Production and Conservation Undersecretary Bill Northey, Risk Management Agency Administrator Martin Barbre, Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce, and Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers gave updates on hemp ahead of the 2020 growing season, and answered questions about requirements for the domestic production of hemp.
First, the USDA announced specifics of two risk management programs for hemp growers.
One pilot program, called the Multi-Peril Crop Insurance, is designed to cover hemp crop damage or loss due to things like fire or extreme weather events, and is available to farmers in some counties in only 21 states this year.
The next insurance program, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, is geared at providing protection to farmers where “no permanent federal crop insurance program is available.” Qualified farmers can apply for coverage under either program until March 16.
The USDA released the interim final rule for hemp production in October, and more than 4,600 people have weighed in on areas that they’d like tweaked, or in some cases, overhauled. As Cannabis Wire recently reported, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture sent a letter to the USDA urging flexibility in a number of areas, from lab testing to plans for destruction of hot hemp (or, hemp with more than .3% THC). As it is, dozens of states will need to change their hemp plans to be compliant, Bryan Hurlburt, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture told Cannabis Wire.
So far 13 hemp plans have been approved by the USDA, six for states, and seven for tribes, according to Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers.
“There are few topics that have generated as much interest or enthusiasm as the provisions allowing for the domestic production of hemp,” Summers said during the update.
The Agency plans to reopen the formal comment period after the first growing season to gather feedback based on the “actual experiences of producers, state tribes and others” during the first year, and then use the comments and “lessons learned in the growing season to help us develop the final regulations, which we intend to complete within two years when this interim final rule was first published,” he said.
“During the recent public comment period, we’ve learned there is some confusion and frustration about some of the requirements in the rule,” Summers said.
He reiterated that the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp also gave the USDA definitions and requirements that had to be “incorporated wholly” into the interim final rule. Examples include: the .3% THC limit; the rule that testing for THC must use a post decarboxylation method; and the requirement that 12 months after the date that the interim final rule for hemp was published, all hemp producers must “comply” with the 2018 Farm Bill, and move away from 2014 Farm Bill rules.
“Any changes to these requirements require legislative action,” Summers said.
But, the 2018 Farm Bill also provides areas for wiggle room, or “flexibility,” as Summers put it. Those areas include: the 15 day window to sample a harvest, and some of those sampling procedures.
During a question and answer period, reporters (including Cannabis Wire) pressed for specifics about areas of flexibility, specifically around testing, “hot hemp,” and disposal.
The USDA interim final rules defines the threshold for “negligence as .5% THC, meaning if the hemp tests positive for .5% or above, it counts as a strike, and if a farmer receives three of these strikes in a 10 year period, they would not be allowed to grow hemp.”
In response to a Cannabis Wire question about whether federal regulators will be flexible on this front, Summers said, “It could very well be that a producer does everything possible and still comes out a little bit over the point three. If it’s more than point three and less than point five, that would not be considered a negligent violation.”
Summers added that hemp that tests over .3% THC would still need to be “disposed of.”
“We said ‘disposed of,’ which is not destroyed because there’s probably some flexibility there and we hope to get some additional guidance out on that shortly,” he said.
Cannabis Wire followed up with the USDA to ask what specific guidance is expected, and when, and we’ll update this story with comments from the Agency.
Regarding another question about flexibility, Summers returned to the “disposal” of “hot hemp” over .3% THC, and said, “There’s some discretion there we can exercise through notice and comment, rulemaking, and probably some discretion on laboratories, but fairly narrow.”
This year will give the USDA and other federal agencies troves of data upon which they can make future decisions. For example, when asked about the current size of the hemp industry, Farm Production and Conservation Undersecretary Bill Northey said, “We’re still all guessing on the exact number of acres.”
He added, “I think going forward, we’ll be able to understand the size of the industry very well, because everyone will need to have a license and everyone to participate will need to certify those acres at our FSA office… There is a lot of interest in the country.”