By Georgie Smith, NIHC contributing writer
Hemp farmers, hemp CBD manufacturers and hemp business industry partners attending a first-ever, two-day ‘business summit’ were assured one thing repeatedly — answers are coming.
The National Industrial Hemp Council (NIHC) hosted a sold-out, premiere event August 12-13 at the historic Benson Hotel in Portland, Ore. A jam-packed agenda of speakers and panelists included a U.S. Senator, representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as dozens of industry leaders and key academic researchers.
Industrial hemp’s Wild West ‘gold rush’ from prohibition to legal status has left almost every aspect of the industry reeling in a quagmire of questions, confusion and unknowns. The good news? Everybody is so excited, and pressure has been so keen, that answers and solutions are just around the corner.
“We’re Americans, we’ll get there,” said Patrick Atagi, chairman of the NIHC board in his opening remarks. The NIHC is committed to launching the hemp industry on solid footing with strong market development and ongoing education, via networking and advocating on state, federal, private and public levels.
Following is a round-up of the ‘clarity’ the industry should be hearing over the coming weeks, months and, in some cases, a bit longer than that.
USDA to Issue Rules and Regs Soon, Support for Hemp Farming Strong
Greg Ibach, USDA’s undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs, said he is “astounded by the number of uses for fiber” from hemp.
The USDA recognizes the enthusiasm for hemp and is putting its resources behind helping.
First up is USDA’s implementation of interim rules and regulations. Those are expected within a matter of weeks — a record pace that reflects the keen interest in hemp. They should address multiple issues including creating standardized THC testing protocols and clarification on multi-peril crop insurance for hemp as well as banking regulatory issues.
Coming up, the USDA will begin using rural development funds to establish processing chain, as well as adding hemp into existing programs including research and marketing initiatives.
FDA Sees “Significant Potential” in Hemp and CBD, Seeking Research to Ensure Safety
“When it comes to hemp, we see exciting potential opportunities, but also potential risks,” said Lowell Schiller, FDA’s principal associate commissioner for policy.
As a science-based public health agency, FDA needs data to back-up the medical and therapeutic claims surrounding CBD and ensure its safety for the American consumer.
Schiller encouraged the audience to submit evidence and apply for new approval standards. Approving new uses would be a “big win for public health.”
The FDA also needs to evaluate new food, cosmetic and dietary supplements made from hemp for safety, though not under such a keen regulatory eye as medical uses. The FDA has already approved hemp seeds, seed oil and seed protein as safe and is open to approving more hemp ingredients for the marketplace. Putting CBD into food products, however, will have added hurdles as it is considered a drug.
Schiller assured the audience that the FDA is “working hard to do our part” and asked that industry leaders’ partner with them to create safe, hemp-derived products for American consumers.
Continued Legislative Help in the Works for U.S. Hemp Industry
Panelists speaking to legislative issues surrounding the hemp industry, including Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore), agreed that legalization of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill was merely the ‘starting gun’ of the hemp industry race. Additional federal and state legislative framework is needed to support it.
Merkley announced he has bipartisan committee support and is pushing for a legislative fix to the hemp banking quagmire with his Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would “clear the path for complete and normal banking services” for the cannabis industry.
Merkley said, if needed, he will pressure Congress for a quick path to FDA rule-making for approval of hemp and CBD products.
Eric Steenstra, of Vote Hemp, discussed a new “Hemp for Victory Act,” introduced by U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard, (D-HI), which would expand current USDA programs for hemp and push for wide-ranging federal research into all aspects of the crop.
“Getting the farm bill was just the beginning,” Steenstra said. “We have so much left to do to make sure we set a really solid footing for the industry going forward.”
Bankers Are on the ‘Cusp of Clarity,’ Anxious to Support Hemp Business
Once rules and regulations are issued, the U.S. banking industry will have a much clearer path to support the hemp industry, panelists said.
The current problem — which has left many hemp companies unable to secure banking services — is that without clear written rules for regulatory examiners to follow, many banks have been unwilling to take the risk of potentially going afoul of banking rules.
“We’re in the business of taking risk. But what we can’t do is take regulatory risk,” Said Gordon Zimmerman, President and CEO of Citizens Bank.
Interim USDA rules and regulations will alleviate a lot of concerns for the growing side, and then they will be waiting for the FDA to rule on CBD medicinal and food safety.
Hail and Whole Farm Revenue Insurance Options Are Available for Hemp Farmers
Lack of historic data has been a big challenge, but that’s rapidly changing, said Cathy Bartels, senior vice president, Insurance Services, Northwest Farm Credit Services.
Just that morning she opened up a claim for hail damage on a hemp farm in central Oregon. Bartels said she is aware of three other claims across the U.S. that have been made for hemp farmers.
Ben Thiel, director, Regional Office, USDA Risk Management Agency said his office has been holding listening meetings to develop a multi-peril crop insurance policy for hemp farmers.
He said he envisions various products for the different segments of the hemp industry — i.e., flower (essential oil), fiber and seed. Questions resolved around THC testing will help clarify issues. A need for data on good agronomic practices is also delaying the process.
While there is no set-in-stone time frame for multi-peril crop insurance, seasoned farmers should look into whole farm revenue insurance as a solution depending on their operations, Thiel said.
More Industrial Hemp Varietals Coming, but Will Take Time to Reach Goals
Plant breeders are emboldened by the great genetic diversity of cannabis seeds but say it will take time to tease out tried and true ‘industrial hemp’ varietals appropriate for U.S. farmers. This is especially the case for those adapted for regional conditions, grown for different end-uses, and with acceptable levels of genetic purity.
In the meantime, make sure to only purchase seeds certified by agencies accepted in your state. And whatever you do, don’t plant seed that comes in an unmarked ‘brown paper bag.’
Certifying standards — aimed at ensuring the seeds planted should not produce a plant that goes over the .3 percent THC level mandated by Congress — vary from state to state, an issue that needs to be addressed, said Damon Hess, vice president of sales at Phlyos. Hess said Phylos plans to come out with a new certified industrial hemp varietal for next year, but it will still take several more years to reach the regional adaption and genetic purity standards the industry is shooting for.
With Legalization, U.S. Hemp Industry Research Has Exploded Across Disciplines
In the 1930s hemp was known to have 20,000 potential uses. Yet with prohibition, hemp missed the “green revolution,” said Jay Noller, director and lead researcher at Oregon State University’s (OSU) Global Hemp Innovation Center.
That puts us today in a very “significant discovery process,” Noller said. “You thought there were a lot of differences in wine. This industry will put that to shame. And that’s just on the essential oil side.”
OSU is working across disciplines and with other universities to explore hemp on every level. Meanwhile there is a need for ‘hemp industrial parks’ and research and business partnerships. OSU just introduced the first two in a series of agronomic publications to help guide farmers growing hemp with research-based growing advice.
New Innovations, New Ideas for Hemp Biomass Processing and Storage Solutions
Steve Groff, M.D., of Groff North America, discussed his “HempTrain” technology that focuses on processing the entire plant for both fiber and oil, allowing for dual-purpose crops. The ‘HempTrain’ process is affordable compared to other stationary processing alternatives and can accommodate round bales of hemp (baled using existing technology).
In the meantime, the cold storage industry is rapidly researching and testing options to explore if cold storage — and what kind — can provide solutions for biomass needing storage services.
“Can our industry support your industry?” asked Stephen Neel, senior technical director at Global Cold Chain Alliance. “The answer is, I believe we can. But we have a lot of answers (we need first).”
Neel said the cold storage industry has companies and facilities across the country available to help with hemp biomass storage solutions. They just need to determine the parameters of good storage practices.
Other Important Take-aways From the Hemp Business Summit
- There are currently no pesticides or herbicides certified for use on hemp by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is expected that manufacturers will soon begin submitting their products to be authorized for use in hemp. In the meantime, check with your state department of agriculture for a list of ‘generally considered safe’ products that could be legally used in hemp (typically products listed on the National Organic Program standards list).
- Organic certification is available for hemp growers and can be an excellent tool for standing out in the marketplace. Because no pesticides or herbicides are currently registered to use in hemp, many growers may already be following organic standards, making transition to organic certification relatively easy. Contact your local state department of agriculture for rules and certification guidance.
- Stay current on your legal issues. From growing hemp and THC testing, to the legalities of manufacturing and marketing CBD products, the industry poses many potential legal minefields that many aren’t considering. Transportation, water rights, environmental regulations, labeling and marketing end-user products all offer legal risks. Make sure to consult with legal experts.
Additional information from the summit, including notes from each panel, will be made available to NIHC members.
Summit report contributed by NIHC member and freelance writer Georgie Smith.
Georgie is a fourth-generation Pacific Northwest farmer who ran her own successful, highly diversified vegetable operations before giving it all up to write about farming.
A former news journalist in her ‘pre-farming’ career with an insatiable curiosity and passion for all things farming, Georgie is focused on writing about the evolving U.S. hemp industry, new farm technology and regenerative agriculture.