Potted hemp plant on display at Hemp Education & Marketing Pavilion at the 2020 World Ag Expo

By Geoffrey Taylor

Regulations are rarely a welcome addition to any agricultural operation, and hemp is no different. With substantial progress in hemp farming at the federal level with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, regulations are required at the state level and California is currently building a robust regulatory climate for hemp farmers. Top that off with the passage of a recent industrial hemp ordinance from the Kern County Board of Supervisors, and 2020 is proving to bring a wave of change throughout the local industry.

“Hemp has gotten a lot of bad publicity in Kern County with some high-profile incidents,” said Jonathon Mills of EcoHemp of California, a permitted hemp producer near Delano. “The regulations and the new ordinance support our goal to promote and grow this flourishing industry in Kern County the right way.”

Though additional regulations on agricultural operations create more red tape for producers, some aspects of the state’s regulations will help while others may present even greater challenges to a growing industry.

“The industrial hemp program is vibrant and volatile, meaning that we’re off to an energetic start. However, this new program is constantly changing,” said Cerise Montanio, Deputy Director of the Consumer & Agricultural Protection Division of the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards. “With the passage of SB 153, we have amended and new definitions, detailed variety development plan requirements, criminal background checks that make persons convicted of controlled substance related felonies ineligible to participate in the industrial hemp program for 10 years from their conviction date, and most importantly, the requirement that CDFA has to submit a state regulatory plan to USDA for review and approval by May 1, 2020.”

As hemp production in California is expected to reach billions of dollars in California within the next several years, the state is taking greater control of the industry with the passage of SB 153 in October 2019. State lawmakers began the process of creating greater regulatory framework for the production of hemp within the state of California to comply not only with federal mandates but also to provide greater clarity around this emerging commodity.

California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA, is required by SB 153 to provide the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with a state-specific plan outlining federal compliance and state-specific regulations. The USDA has 60 days to approve or deny the CDFA plan.

Montanio continues by noting that, “Once the state plan is approved (by the USDA), there will be additional amended and new definitions, registration requirements for established agricultural research institutions and consequences for negligent violations.” With the release of text from the new CDFA regulations in Sections 4901 and 4902, it creates a framework for registration requirements, timeframes for permit renewals and clarifies the criminal history check now associated with industrial hemp cultivation permitting.

CDFA has proposed changes to Code sections 4901 and 4902 and is focused on providing a streamlined growing season for California hemp farmers as federal noncompliance could cost California hemp farmers over $742,000,000 according to CDFA calculations.

“These regulations should be open for public comment shortly. The public comment period recently closed, after being extended to January 29, 2020, for the (USDA) Federal Interim Final Rule,” said Montanio. “Some of the major issues in this legislation is that sampling agents would have to be USDA approved, strict accredited laboratory requirements and a shortened harvest window for cultivators.”

With over 600 permitted farmers and more than 37,000 acres of hemp planted statewide as of December 2019, the CDFA wants to ensure their federal compliance plan is submitted in a timely manner with time for potential alterations to be made.

Another recent development was the passage of Kern County’s updated industrial hemp ordinance on February 11, 2020. The ordinance creates new local level regulations and fees that some producers are noting as both positives and negatives to their individual operations. The ordinance also adds additional fees for law enforcement response and limits research permits to just one acre of production space.

“Now that the industrial hemp program has been operative for nine months in California, individual counties have identified problems and concerns and are following up with ordinances,” said Montanio, in reference to the recent passage of Kern County’s industrial hemp cultivation permitting. “The impact for potential hemp cultivators and breeders is that the program is becoming more intricate, but the possibilities for a new, robust California commodity are great”

While some producers believe they are under a regulatory microscope, the consensus within the regional hemp farming community is positive and focused on moving forward with continual shifts in policy and regulation.

“While it’s hard to justify additional costs to California farmers, it’s adding another layer of complication for counties that can’t afford to maintain these hemp programs without generating income to make it work,” said Mills, “and the counties have put in a lot of work to get these programs up and operational and to weed out bad actors from the hemp industry.”

Despite the ongoing changes to the state and local Industrial Hemp program, Montanio and the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s office are optimistic for local hemp producers. Montanio finished by stating: “There are so many opportunities for the industrial hemp industry and we are excited to be pioneers together in this adventure.”

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