The Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative is pushing for changes to the state’s hemp rules to make cultivating the crop easier and less costly for farmers. State officials say they need to take precautions to ensure that no one is growing hemp’s cousin, marijuana.
Julie Doran stood between two neat rows of chest-high hemp plants on a 5-acre plot in Westerville last week and explained what the crop is used for and how it grows.
While the farm tour was intended to educate the public about the intricacies of hemp cultivation, there was another important message aimed squarely at the three members of the Ohio House of Representatives who toured the farm.
Ohio’s hemp laws, Doran said, must be loosened to give farmers the leeway they need to grow the crop, which is used in products ranging from nutritional supplements to rope and bags. The crop is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
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The passage of Senate Bill 57 last year legalized hemp in Ohio, giving the state’s farmers access to a potentially lucrative market. Kentucky’s hemp processors made more than $57 million last year.
Nearly 200 Ohioans have a license to grow hemp so far, and this year’s crop will serve as a trial run for both farmers and the regulators. The Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative, which Doran heads, is lobbying the state to regulate hemp the way it regulates other crops.
But hemp, state officials counter, isn’t like other crops because of its close relationship to marijuana (both plants come from cannabis), which is still illegal under federal law. Ohio’s regulations, they say, are necessary to keep the state’s hemp program in line with federal guidelines and ensure that no one is growing marijuana. Marijuana cultivation is licensed through the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program.
The visiting lawmakers seemed receptive to Doran’s message Tuesday.
“I want to make sure that what we’ve placed into law can really be effective to the (farmers) we want to help,” said Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, who is on the House Agriculture Committee.
Farmers are required to grow at least 1,000 hemp plants under state law. Brent and Rep. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus, who also toured the farm Tuesday, agreed that the requirement is too big a barrier for many aspiring hemp farmers, particularly urban farmers with few acres.
“Having to have 1,000 plants would be difficult for a lot of people,” Crawley said. She added that farmers in her district told her the requirements are too stringent.
Senate Bill 57 left it to the Ohio Department of Agriculture to create the rules governing hemp farming. The agency looked to other states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for guidance.
Minimum planting requirements were based on Kentucky’s rules and are meant to ensure that hemp production is commercial, David Miran, director of the agriculture department’s hemp program, said in a statement.
A $500 licensing fee is intended to pay for the inspectors, laboratory staff and office staff the agriculture department needs to oversee hemp production, Miran said.
“ODA’s licensing fees are on average with other states,” he said.
Federal law governs one of the most stringent restrictions. If hemp crops contain more than 0.3% THC the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana those plants must be destroyed. Under state law, which takes its cue from a 2016 farm bill that created national guidelines for hemp production, any cannabis that exceeds that threshold is considered marijuana.
Doran would like farmers to have a little more leeway on the THC limit.
The Westerville farmer has several growing locations for hemp, each featuring a different variety, and must pay the state $500 to inspect each of them. On top of that, she needs three to five workers to tend to the crops to ensure they’re growing correctly and aren’t exceeding the THC limit.
“You can rack up fees really, really quickly,” she said. “It’s really prohibitive.”
Fees are intended to cover only the cost of the hemp program, said Tony Seegers, a lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau who worked with legislators.
“I understand some grumblings about the fees,” he said. “I can tell you they’re comparable with other states.”
Some regulation is necessary to ensure that farmers are growing legal hemp rather than illegal marijuana, he said, and the state needs minimum planting requirements “so we didn’t have a couple of folks growing hemp plants out their window.”
State Sen. Steve Huffman, who sponsored Senate Bill 57 and is on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he’s open to revisiting the hemp regulations but wants to see how Ohio’s hemp industry evolves under the current system.
“To me it’s a little premature to go back and change the rules,” he said. “We need to look at it after the whole system is mature.”
Larry Householder was recently removed from his post as Ohio House speaker after a corruption scandal, and Robert Cupp, R-Lima, took his place. Brent is optimistic that the new leadership is amenable to easing hemp restrictions.
Crawley is more skeptical.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Maybe there’s a possibility next term” if the General Assembly leadership is responsive to farmers’ needs.
Tim Johnson, co-founder of the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce advocacy group, said the hemp industry also is lobbying the agriculture department, but said his group is focused on the General Assembly because the legislature can write restrictions out of state law completely.