Appalachian Hemp Farmers Face Uncertain Year

Proposed federal changes have sown confusion 

Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of Appalachian Voices. This is part two of a three-part story. Parts 1 and 3 can be read here and here.

An Appalachian hemp farm

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. — All states in Central and Southern Appalachia have legalized industrial hemp. Yet, as the 2020 growing season approaches, the new USDA rules concern the region’s farmers.

Blake Butler of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association notes that the state’s program has evolved from one that emphasized research as required by the 2014 Farm Bill into a state pilot program that has approved applications for 1,300 growers and 700 processors. Indeed in 2015, the N.C. General Assembly established the Industrial Hemp Commission to stay within federal laws, and the state continues to accept applications for its Industrial Hemp Pilot Program.

Additionally, the 2019 North Carolina Farm Act is in legislative limbo over issues unrelated to industrial hemp, such as hog waste disposal and legislative stalemates. Yet, industrial hemp provisions are in the bill, including a ban on smokable hemp. Butler admits, “I have no idea what the legislature is going to do.” However, the legislature is not scheduled to convene until April 28. Butler is hopeful farmers would have six months to adapt to any law changes.

Yet, the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association — as well as farmers like Heather Bryant — are promising an aggressive fight against any legislation that would harm their fledgling industry, including the more conservative definition of THC and the criminalization of smokable hemp.

“We and many others are prepared for the class action lawsuit,” Bryant explains. “While [passage of the state bill] will hinder us with in-state sales, it does not restrict us from selling our crop out-of-state. North Carolinians will also still be able to purchase hemp online, as the federal government has made clear the interstate commerce cannot be stopped. It can be shipped via USPS. We will be able to boost other state’s economies with the sale of hemp, but North Carolina will get nothing from it.”

Indeed, the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission has issued a resolution in opposition to the proposed prohibition.

2020 is the final year of Kentucky’s research pilot program for hemp before the state transitions to a commercial program. In early February, the state legislature sent the governor a hemp bill that would loosen some restrictions, such as allowing more laboratories to test for THC. But the state’s industry is seeing setbacks, too; on Feb. 6, the state’s leading hemp company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture announced changes to the state’s hemp program last June. As a result, the industry has grown dramatically. The agency’s website notes that it “has licensed more than 2,900 hemp growers in 2019. In 2018, TDA approved 226 hemp producer applications.” By Nov. 1, 2019, the state had licensed 3,800 hemp farmers, according to Commercial Appeal.

In March 2019, Virginia legalized commercial hemp growing and processing, and in the fall, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the commonwealth’s first industrial hemp processing facility would be in Wythe County. The company will process bales of hemp stalks, and, according to the governor’s press release, “will sell bast fiber to a North Carolina company for further processing and sale to the textile industry, while the woody core of the plant, or hurd, will be sold to a Virginia company for use as animal bedding.”

© Michael M. Barrick, 2020. Photo courtesy of Don Smith II.

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