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Farm bill with new marijuana measure passes U.S. Senate, NY farmers cheer

December 11, 2018 11:30 PM

New York farmers looked with hope on the progress of the new federal farm bill which passed in the U.S. senate on Tuesday.  

The bill included a provision to take "industrial hemp" off the government's list of Schedule 1 drugs, opening up the potential for a valuable new cash crop. 

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"My prediction would be that, in the absence of that legal jeopardy, you will see a lot more investment," declared Lawrence Smart, horticulture professor at Cornell University.

Industrial hemp is the same plant as marijuana, cannabis sativa, but the breeds of the plant used for industrial hemp have levels of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, too low to produce the "high" of pot.

The Hemp Farming Act component of the 2018 farm bill makes it clear that cannabis with levels of THC lower than point three percent would be considered "hemp" and not "marijuana."  The measure passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted out video of himself signing the Conference Committee compromise version of the farm bill with a hemp pen.

The distinction between illegal marijuana and legal hemp was one Tompkins County farmer Michael Casper was eager to see made.

"The plant is so tainted with the dogma of being an illegal plant, marijuana, a gateway drug," he said.

In February, Casper launched his first attempt at growing hemp.

In December, he declared this year's results a "blue ribbon" crop four times bigger than he'd expected, but held back his enthusiasm as he waited for the results of the final votes on the farm bill.  

With hemp still considered a controlled substance, Casper's 6,000 plants remained technically a research experiment conducted under the auspices of Cornell University.

Agriculture watchers predicted hemp's transition to being considered a crop much like any other would open up vast new markets for New York growers."I do think there is an element of there being a pent-up consumer need for this," asserted Jeff Williams, public policy director with the New York Farm Bureau. "You can walk through the grocery store and see  [hemp] products from Canada, soap, protein shakes, different kinds of foods that consumers want to buy and they're actively seeking them out.….really the sky's the limit when it comes to what the product can provide."

Williams predicted a valuable boost for New York farmers once they had the opportunity to start rotating hemp in with their corn and soybeans.

 "We've seen the marked downturn in the dairy industry with regard to prices and farmers are struggling," he said. "The ability to grow hemp for market, on the nutrition side, on the fiber side, even in the manufacturing side, it has tremendous value as a crop."

Industry advocates declared New York an especially fertile climate for hemp with good soil and abundant rain but also friendly regulations including Governor Andrew Cuomo's approval last year of $10 million for hemp research and grants.

Officials in Livingston County said that environment also attracted the attention of hemp materials company Sunstrand Sustainable Materials which last year scouted out possible locations in the county for a facility to produce hemp-based products like coreboard and insulation.

Sunstrand routinely touts the environmental friendliness of its products, an outlook that Smart predicted would give extra energy to New York's hemp industry.  

"BMW is using hemp products in their door panels of some of their cars," he said "There are products out there right now that use hemp that are a replacement for fiberglass insulation. So that's the type of thing that we really want to see develop, innovative "bio-based" "agriculturally based" products to replace fossil fuels products."

For his part, Casper found his own market for his hemp crop.

On the same day the Senate passed the farm bill, New York City company Brooklyn Hemp chose him to be its supplier for cannabidiol, CBD, products.  

Another compound found in the cannabis plant, CBD has enjoyed increasing popularity for its properties for relieving anxiety and seizure disorders and has become a popular additive in lotions, oils, teas , tinctures and vape products.

In speaking with News10NBC, a Brooklyn Hemp representative declared Casper's crop "the best hemp in the state."

While the farm bill drew a sharp line between legal non-narcotic hemp and illegal narcotic marijuana, scientists cautioned that the caprices of plant biology threatened to cross that line if the makeup of a crop of hemp weren't closely monitored and the plants were to chemically stray into the category of marijuana, a phenomenon Smart called "going hot."

"There can be cases of the hemp having to much of the active ingredient, too much THC in the plant," said Williams.  "Farmers, growers, and the regulatory community understand that's a potential and a farmer wouldn't want to lose the potential outlet for their market with it being 'hot.'"

"If a grower has a crop that starts to produce levels of THC above that legal limit of .3%, they are in potentially legal jeopardy," Smart agreed.

As cultivation of hemp became more widespread, Smart urged the development of reliable networks of seed producers to prevent those seeds from sprouting into… weed.  Such networks, he insisted, had ample precedent for farmers to follow.  "We've been breeding hemp and Europe and Canada for a few decades now" he pointed out, "Through long-term selection and screening for THC, we have cultivars that consistently produce low levels of THC."

Once the farm bill passed, regulation of hemp would become the province of the states.

Williams predicted a period of one to five years during which New York farmers developed their techniques for growing the crops and hemp-consuming businesses established their relationships with the newly minted hemp growers.

Smart saw a familiar parallel in upstate New York's embrace of craft beers which touched off its own agricultural ripple effect.

"With the legislation around the Farm Brewery Act, that required local production of hops and melting barley," he said. "So, we've seen a big expansion in local hops production and malting barley production…. I think that's a good comparison."

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