Commissioners consider industrial hemp

Two weeks after discussing the need for a more diverse economy in Humboldt County, commissioners learned of a program to grow an alternative crop with tantalizing potential and a controversial cousin — industrial hemp.

Commissioners heard a presentation from Russell Wilhelm from the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) about the state’s industrial hemp program during the May 7 meeting.

Industrial hemp is a form of cannabis sativa with a very low THC content (.3 percent or lower). THC is the psychoactive component in marijuana that makes the user feel “high” or “stoned.” That low of a concentration has no psychoactive effect.

Hemp fiber is used in a variety of industries, including paper, construction and textiles. Hemp oil is used in cosmetics and food as well as the medicinal cannabinoid extract CBD that has shown to alleviate symptoms of a range of medical conditions like epilepsy and anxiety.

Hemp has a growing fanbase in the United States. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced Farm Bill 2018 that removes industrial hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. McConnell’s home state of Kentucky has had the longest-running industrial hemp-growing program in the country, Wilhelm said.

In Nevada, two senate bills, SB 305 and SB 396, provide for growing industrial hemp “under certain circumstances.” Growers, handlers and seed producers must register their operations with the NDA.

Crops undergo two inspections: one 15 days post-planting to verify that the seeds were planted in the location indicated on the application and another to test for THC potency 15 days prior to harvest. In the second inspection, the top six inches of 10 randomly-selected female plants (the most potent part of the more potent plants) is tested for its level of delta-9 THC. Crops that contain more than .3 percent delta-9 THC are destroyed.

There are currently three classes of hemp seed: certified, eligible and rogue. Certified seed has been certified by the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and maintains genetic purity. Eligible seed has been vetted by the state based on prior growing seasons to meet the definition of industrial hemp with the .3 percent THC. Rogue seed is not vetted, has not been grown in the state and cannot be guaranteed to produce industrial hemp that meets qualifications. Certified and Eligible seed has no production limits, while Rogue seed has a five acre or five pound limit for the first year until quality and THC level can be confirmed by the NDA.

The NDA is currently developing testing protocols and standards to ensure that all industrial hemp products still meet the .3 percent THC or lower requirement. Industrial hemp is considered the same as any agricultural commodity, and industrial hemp products like CBD can be sold anywhere in the state, not just at marijuana dispensaries. This allows growers and producers to compete equally with online stores.

The NDA is also working on coordinating with law enforcement about locations of fields to cut down on the potential for unregistered fields and illegal crops.

The industrial hemp program was instituted in Nevada in 2016 and approximately 225 acres were planted that year. 2017 saw around 500 acres planted, and 2018 approximately 1,500 acres.

A farmer in Orovada has already growing industrial hemp since the program started three years ago and added his input to the discussion. “It’s a hard plant to produce,” he said. Diseases have been the biggest issue. The NDA keeps a keen eye on these diseases and is working to eradicate them. The farmer said he hasn’t made any money on the crop yet.

Growing or handling industrial hemp or producing hemp seed requires a financial investment. Applications for approval to grow industrial hemp have a $500 fee plus $5 per acre or .33 cents per 1,000 square feet of land. Applications fees for hemp seed production cost $100 plus acreage fees and industrial hemp handler’s application fees are $1,000.

Commissioners expressed interest in the program. Commissioner Ron Cerri suggested that the county should update ordinance to specifically address industrial hemp farms and businesses.

Jim French mentioned the potential for hiding illegal plants in the legal crop. He wanted to make sure that allowing industrial hemp does not contradict the will of county voters, the majority of whom rejected legalized marijuana in the 2016 referendum. Humboldt County ordinance and zoning currently do not allow for large-scale cultivation or processing of marijuana.

Wilhelm said the county has the power to disallow the program if commissioners deem it necessary.

“New crop,” commissioner Mike Bell said. “Get rid of the alfalfa. Here we go.”

Wilhelm said a company in Canada is interested in growing certified industrial hemp seed in Nevada and processing the seed in Montana. This could result in approximately 3,000 acres of industrial hemp grown in Humboldt County.

“I know that there’s a taboo around marijuana as well as industrial hemp at this time. Our obligation is to take SB 396 as well as 305 and work that into something that is valuable to the producer and to the public,” Wilhelm said.