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For hemp farmers, the year 2020 started out with great excitement.

USDA had recently announced its interim final rule, providing the industry with legal clarity. States were getting their oversight programs ready for the second commercial growing season since the crop had been fully legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In early January, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture announced it was lowering permit fees and creating a permit for hemp processors.

Other states, such as New Jersey, that had not been operating a hemp pilot program under the 2014 Farm Bill began bringing their own programs online.

While the interim final rule spelled out expectations, it was more confining in some places than farmers wanted.

The rule said growers had to harvest within 15 days of THC testing, added restrictions to THC sampling methods, and required testing labs to be registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

USDA twice delayed enforcement of some of the new standards this year, meaning they won’t go into effect till late 2021. Still, more than half the states decided not to align their regulatory programs with the interim final rule this year.

By March it was also clear that the coronavirus-related business shutdowns would have major effects on the hemp industry. Hemp educational events like the Hemporium in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and trade shows like the NoCo Hemp Expo in Colorado were rescheduled and eventually canceled.

But even as the shutdown disrupted global supply chains and slowed the permitting process, Pennsylvania issued 578 hemp permits in 2020. The significant increase over 2019 was somewhat surprising considering that the market for CBD biomass was crashing and much of the previous year’s crop was still unsold.

But once the growing season was underway, things began to feel somewhat normal for hemp farmers. Seeds were planted; crops were grown. Out West there were fires, drought and some early snowfall that caused problems for growers, but in Pennsylvania, the weather was ideal for growing. The biggest problem seemed to be caterpillars in the buds.

The Pennsylvania Ag Department began approving third-party agents this year to reduce the demand for state staff to collect field samples.

In August, the DEA released its own interim final rule on hemp, creating concern and confusion in the industry.

The biggest question was whether the DEA should have a say in what happens with hemp that is above the legal limit of THC while it’s being processed, even if the final product is compliant.

Most people in the hemp industry question why the DEA is involved in the first place.

There is a strong movement now to lobby Congress to increase the legal THC concentration of hemp to 1%. That threshold is easier to achieve than the current 0.3% and would still be far below concentrations in marijuana.

About 9% of samples tested above the legal THC limit this year in Pennsylvania, according to the state Ag Department.

The hot samples were all CBD varieties and were destroyed under the supervision of department officials.

Excitement for fiber and grain varieties continued to grow in 2020, with much talk of hempcrete for construction and hemp seed as a livestock feed.

The season wrapped up with the second annual Pennsylvania Hemp Summit, held virtually this year. It brought together farmers, business leaders, policymakers and investors to discuss the the future of the industry and to learn from one another.

The permitting process for the 2021 growing season is underway.

Eric Hurlock is the producer of Lancaster Farming’s Industrial Hemp Podcast series.

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