Just as Plumas County officials get down to the wire on formulating industrial hemp regulations locally, the USDA announced its interim rules.
That announcement came about Tuesday, Nov. 19, as Plumas County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Gibson and two hemp growers discussed industrial hemp before the Board of Supervisors.
Accepting the costs and challenges of a second year in growing industrial hemp, Sierra Valley ranchers Dave and Jane Roberti determined that new federal changes mean they probably won’t grow next year.
It was the federal government that set the wheels in motion allowing the production of industrial hemp.
Unlike some California counties that placed a moratorium on industrial hemp production, the Plumas County Planning Commission and supervisors allowed cultivation of the crop.
The 2018 Farm Bill moved hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity allowing its cultivation in most states (Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi and New Hampshire have bans).
In order to produce hemp, a farmer must first be licensed or authorized under a state or tribal hemp program or through the USDA hemp program, according to federal guidelines.
If a state or American Indian tribe desires primary regulatory authority over hemp production within its borders, a plan must be submitted.
States that have already submitted a plan will be given the chance to reaffirm the plan they want the USDA to evaluate, or submit a new plan.
Plumas County moved forward with the permit process allowing permitted growers an opportunity to raise industrial hemp.
Local guidelines stipulate that a grower must be affiliated with an accredited research program. The Robertis and others are working in cooperation with the University of Nevada, Reno’s accredited program.
On Oct. 29, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced the establishment of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program.
This program, it is believed, will establish some consistency on the regulatory framework concerning hemp production.
A key factor for raising industrial hemp — both on the federal and local levels — is that concentrations of THC must be less than 0.3 percent.
Stakeholders were hoping these regulations, even interim final rules, would provide some clarity on the testing process as there was little uniformity across states in how the crop would be tested; some states would just test the top 8 inches of a plant, while others would test 6 inches, and there was little consistency in how to build up a statistically significant sample of a farmer’s crop.
Dave Roberti said that he sends in a branch from the plant to be tested. Growing hemp is labor intensive and by requiring farmers to use only the top 6 inches would open him up to yet more regulations and concerns.
Hemp plants must be tested 15 days prior to anticipated harvest. The THC level typically increases as the plant matures. If the THC is higher than legally allowed, the crop must be destroyed. And Roberti doesn’t want to see the federal Drug Enforcement Agency moving in to do that.
According to federal regulations, the rule determines that a producer does not commit a negligent violation if they produce plants that exceed the acceptable hemp THC level as long as they use reasonable efforts to grow the plant and it does not test at more than 0.5 percent THC on a dry weight basis.
Although a farmer testing above 0.3 percent but below 0.5 percent may not be negligent, the crop is still considered a controlled substance and must be disposed of accordingly.
Crops that exceed the maximum amount of THC allowed amount are known as hot crops within the industry. It was initially hoped that once federal guidelines were in place there would be some flexibility as to how these crops were disposed. Some farmers hoped to use such crops for composting and for soil amendments.
But according to new federal regulations, crops with a THC level above 0.3 percent are considered a controlled substance and must meet those regulations. The USDA has no control over this process, therefore hot crops must be disposed of by a DEA registered source, according to industry reports on guidelines.
USDA has issued sampling and testing procedure guidelines. Part of the reasoning for this is to allow the department flexibility as new technologies and procedures are developed over time. Setting the testing and sampling procedures outside of the interim rule allows the guidance documents to be improved without going through an all-out rulemaking.
Roberti also said he has concerns about seed requirements. This year he’s experimented with different seed varieties to see which does the best for his Sierra Valley locations.
According to information from the industry, seeds even from the same producers can vary according to geographic regions. What might test fine for low levels of THC in one area could test higher in another.
Among other regulations, key participants with a state or federal felony conviction for a controlled substance cannot work in the industry for a period of 10 years. This excludes those lawfully growing hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill.
Key participants are those with a director or indirect financial interest in the business including owners and partners. This does not include workers.
How 2019 hemp crops fared
At last, some Plumas County residents have responses to their questions concerning local industrial hemp cultivation.
Plumas County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Gibson reported to the Board of Supervisors that all samples of hemp tested at or below 0.3 percent total THC.
This year eight growers applied for permits but only six chose to raise crops, according to Gibson.
Of those six, 73.4 acres were planted.
That produced 87,300 pounds of raw hemp that was harvested for cannabidiol (CBD).
The department spent 38 hours sampling and delivering eight samples to the U.S. Postal Service or directly to certified labs.
In doing the work, Gibson and his staff drove 269 miles related to hemp sampling.
“Currently producers are finding limited processing available for CBD extraction,” Gibson said.
“One producer is curating for smokeable bud (for CBDs) and anticipates $300 to $600 per pound,” Gibson said.
Challenges and successes
As one of the six permitted industrial hemp growers, Dave Roberti and his wife Jane approached the Board of Supervisors with a brief slide presentation showing this year’s work.
The Roberti family and their workers began laying black ground plastic in their prepared hemp fields June 19, Roberti told supervisors.
The results this year over last year’s hemp crop are drastically different. This year’s crop was successful where last year’s was not good.
Roberti planted approximately 36,000 plants this year. They were in the ground by June 25.
Growing hemp is very labor intensive, Roberti said. That meant they could only plant about 3 acres a day with about 5,600 plants each day.
All but one variety of hemp did very well this year and Roberti said he wouldn’t be going back to that one. With various people visiting or inspecting his fields, Roberti was told that “Our field was one of they best they’d seen in the area.”
By Aug. 27, Robert said the plants had reached about shoulder height or about 5 feet tall.
This looked good until Sept. 27 when the area experienced a hailstorm. Although the hail did significant damage by beating up the plants, the quality was still good. Hail, snow and frost are all contributing factors with a crop that isn’t ready for harvest until late September. The trick is finding the right seed variety for local cultivation.
Water usage was a key factor. He used far less on hemp than he would for an alfalfa crop.
Roberti also used a drip system that keeps the water right on the plant.
Roberti was also fortunate in finding the farm equipment he wanted to use at harvest time. For instance, for harvesting individual plants, he used a specialty cutter with a side delivery system for loading them.
They hung what they could inside an available barn, Roberti said, but most of the crop was left to dry in the fields.
With higher levels of humidity, Roberti said they were having a difficult time getting the hemp to dry out in the barn. After two weeks he said it was still in about the same condition as when they’d hung it up to dry.
Eventually the north winds arrived and dried out what was in the barn and in the fields.
Finally, having a local processing facility would really help with the effort.
Roberti has thoroughly examined the new federal regulations announced in October. “I will not plant next year,” he told supervisors. “It’s not worth the risk, not worth the investment due to restrictions.”