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Hemp industry: High, dry, and dying on the vine

This 200-acre hemp field near Montrose, Colo., was abandoned and has been overrun with volunteer plants and weeds from last growing season.
Courtesy photo

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis fancies his state the national leader in the hemp industry.

With the passage of Amendment 64 legalizing marijuana and hemp in the state, a hemp program was put into motion under then-Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown and was well established before the federal rule making process was initialized by the passage of the 2014 farm bill allowing pilot programs.

Colorado was poised to play a major role in the U.S. Department of Agriculture rulemaking process but, as it is, the state is now scrambling to meet the Interim Final Rule (IFR).

Outside the capitol, agriculture producers are feeling the effects of the hemp industry through inflated cash rent prices for farm ground and some said they’re dismayed by the abandoned, weedy fields and black plastic weed barrier left to rot and blow. Promises of a valuable commodity to bet the farm on have been replaced by a failure state Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican who represents the 64th of Colorado, said belongs squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Polis. That failure, he said, is Polis’ appointment of an agriculture commissioner unqualified to do the job before her. For Holtorf, and some of the constituents he represents, the hemp industry and its promise of farming salvation has imploded, leaving legitimate growers high and dry.

DYING ON THE VINE

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg told the Joint Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources and House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committees on Jan. 9, 2020, that Colorado had launched the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP). The CHAMP group is the one writing the USDA state hemp plan and working to respond to the interim final rule from the USDA, and, she said, building a blueprint for an entire new industry. At the committee meeting, she was presenting the CDA’s goals under her leadership with a major increase in hemp acres among them.

However, the term “dying on the vine” is the one Sen. Don Coram, R-Dist. 6, used to describe the hemp industry that day, one that the Colorado governor has touted as the best in the country. Coram told Greenberg that he didn’t feel that Colorado had been at the table to tell the USDA what does and doesn’t work.

Coram said at the beginning of hemp production in the state, it was, as the saying goes, shooting from the hip but with Duane Sinning at the Colorado Department of Agriculture possessing a great deal of institutional knowledge, the state was more in the driver’s seat and able to send experts to the USDA to give Colorado a seat at the table.

Sinning, however, is one of the staffers Greenberg dismissed when she took on her role. With his transfer elsewhere and the departure of two other staffers, the CDA was left without hemp expertise to send to the table.

According to Grant Orvis, a seasoned consultant in the hemp industry who earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics and reproductive biology, specializing in developing stable and compliant hemp lines, it was at that point that Colorado lost its seat at the table with the USDA for directing the hemp rulemaking process, leaving the state now scrambling to submit comments on the Interim Final Rule.

In a letter to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Orvis points out that as a member of the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan Executive Committee, even Orvis was not provided an opportunity to vet the plan until it was officially submitted. When it was submitted, Orvis said it was without the signature of either Colorado Attorney General Weiser or Polis.

The CHAMP Cultivation work group’s consensus about plant material higher than 0.3% THC levels was that it ought to be destroyed with the exception of the use of seed and stalk material. This was based on the HIA v. DEA 2004 determination regarding the meaning of marijuana, seeds and stalks are exempt. Therefore, the use of seeds and stalks from non-compliant plant material does follow federal guidelines and should have been included in Colorado’s state plan. However, Colorado’s state plan makes no mention of the use of seed and stalks, but instead hypothesizes a “value retention program,” which would allow for the extraction and use of flower material above 0.3% THC. Such a program, he said, would cause economic competition and harm to those who are following the law, when the state should be focusing on promoting the development and purchase of compliant genetics. The bottom line, he said, “is the state plan was written in violation of the IFR and they openly admitted it.”

At print, Colorado is without an approved state plan and hasn’t yet submitted a revised plan. The consequence for this has yet to be seen but Orvis said most likely, the USDA will allow Colorado to operate under the 2014 farm bill.

Even if a new IFR is released after this week’s closure of the comment period, Orvis said it’s unlikely that plant material between 0.3% and 1% THC will be made allowable.

“I was adamantly against that because what it does is creates competition for the people who are doing things legally by people who are doing things illegally,” he said.

Orvis had always taken the stance that plant material above the allowable 0.3% should be destroyed. However, as part of the negotiations that led to a consensus in the CHAMP cultivation workgroup, he now believes the state has legal precedence for the use of seeds and stalks in non-compliant plants.

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

Ed Lehrburger, chair of the Hemp Advisory Committee, has been involved in the state’s hemp industry since it’s introduction. Lehrburger said the transparency of the CDA under the Polis administration is vastly different from the previous administration. Communication between the public and the CDA has been challenging at best, he said.

“Colorado had and still has an opportunity to be very influential in the federal rules and I have been working very hard through the channels that I’m involved with to get the federal government to have more reasonable and farmer-friendly and manufacture-friendly rules and regulations and I think generally the government agrees with that position and they’re open to having more aggressive and friendly rules put forth,” he said. “I can’t blame the Colorado government for that, they want better rules, too. The federal government is coming out with horrible rules that Colorado doesn’t agree with.”

To that point, he said, the lack of transparency surrounding the final letters to the USDA and allowing industry to provide comment or review has lacked transparency and that has been a source of frustration.

WITHOUT A PLAN

In reference to Greenberg’s department goals presentation referenced above, Sen. Coram was frank about the financial gamble hemp growers are facing, even prior to the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

“As is, we got a one-year reprieve, but as is, we are done,” Sen. Coram said. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have bet the farm on (hemp) this year and frankly the farm is going to be gone. We need help.”

In the same committee meeting, Sen. Kerry Donovan, R-Dist. 6, told Greenberg that based on feedback she had received in her district, the growth the commissioner had in her written goals would create competition for already stressed labor availability.

“I hope that’s part of the goal,” Donovan said. “I don’t see it mentioned there but, of course, you can’t reflect the complexity and maybe all the pieces of a goal, but if we’re going to talk about increasing how many acres we do of hemp, I hope we’re talking about increasing workforces so we can still grow onions and some of those other labor-intensive crops in Colorado as well.”

The lack of a market for hemp is a major concern.

“Commissioner Greenberg, one thing that one must remember as a agriculture producer, third generation rancher, farmer, and cattle feeder is that if you don’t have a market for your commodity, you have a real big problem and we’ve lost sight of that and the hemp industry is suffering because of that,” Holtorf said. “People are going to lose a lot of money this year because we didn’t think it through.”

Holtorf said the U.S. has a long record of being productive, efficient farmers and ranchers and leading the world in those pursuits.

“We can get all giddy and excited about production and we can have hundreds and thousands and millions of acres, but if that commodity doesn’t go somewhere, what happens? Well, we’re about ready to find out.”

Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Dist. 58, echoed the concerns of constituents and producers alike, struggling to find reputable people along the supply chain.

“I think the state of Colorado ought to be looking at a little closer is the people who are promoting,” Catlin said. “I know it’s hard to protect people from themselves, I understand that, but there are some players who have come into the state of Colorado who are not the type of people we would like to encourage.”

Catlin told Greenberg there are people in agriculture who will need the help of the CDA to vet and qualify the people they are doing business with across the supply chain.

“If we have too many of our friends, neighbors, and relatives fail, the industry will fail, too,” he said.

Donovan told Greenberg her department’s goals were aspirational and agrees with the needs to identify opportunities to support producers and their operations’ profitability. She cautioned Greenberg about focusing on, for example, soil health, when producers are facing extraordinarily low cattle and commodity prices. Supporting traditional and existing agriculture, Donovan said, should be a departmental commitment.

“Again, soil health, hemp, organic farming, expanding a new farmer bill that I carried a couple of years ago isn’t going to support those numbers on the graphic you started with,” Donovan said. “There’s no question in there it’s just a genuine request that ag across the state is feeling more concern than positive, you’ve heard those stories, we’ve talked about that, and I don’t think these goals you’ve presented today will make them feel less anxious. I think they will feel like we’re not talking about some of the big markets, big issues, big problems and instead, we’re talking about trying to have more contact with new farmers.” ❖

— Gabel is the assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.


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