For a crop that promises to improve the human condition from nutrition to nanotechnology, saying we’ve got a lot to learn may be an understatement. But Washington state is taking on this challenge in a methodical way, with state budgetary support, and the protection if not the blessing, of the federal government.
A presentation by Joy Beckerman of Hemp Ace International titled, Industrial Hemp Farming Basics & Hemp in WA State brought us up to speed since the state legislature passed bill ESSB 6206 in March directing the Washington State Department of Agriculture to license researchers to grow industrial hemp and certify hemp seed. She spoke at the Olympia Timberland Library on Aug. 29.
Washington is now in the rulemaking phase to determine how that research shall proceed, with a target date of planting research crops by 2017.
Only states that have passed legislation to permit cultivation are allowed to participate in the pilot program to re-introduce hemp production under federal law, as spelled out in in the Farm Bill of 2014. Of the 23 states that have, only eight have viably structured programs.
Washington state has a committed budget of $121,000 to set up a program to ensure research licensees are selected properly and their research is of maximum value, inviting comment during this rulemaking phase. The point person for the WSDA is Industrial Hemp Coordinator Emily Febles.
So what does good research look like?
“We already know we’ve done tremendous things with hemp in this country and all over the world,” Beckerman shared. “But we don’t know which cultivars will grow in our soil and our climate. And we need to figure that out.”
The research phase will investigate many aspects such as placing pollination detectors strategically to test how closely marijuana strains can grow to hemp without compromising their innate qualities, and testing soil and other environmental inputs for solid data.
“We used to say it didn’t take any inputs,” Beckerman said of hemp weed. “We used to shout it from the rooftops, ‘it doesn’t need this, it doesn’t need that,’ and frankly none of it was true!”
Turns out hemp is a fairly hungry crop, which we learned from Canadian agrologist Jeff Kostuik of Hemp Genetics International, who joined the group via Skype. It is also a high-value crop, deserving of the best land rather than the ‘back 40.’ Our neighbors to the north have been researching industrial hemp since legalization passed there in 1998. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance is the ‘brain trust’ of hemp research, full of detailed information such as preferred cultivars for varied growing environments, seeding depth, fertilization and crop rotation.
“The learning curve is fairly steep,” Kostuik added. “It’s one of those crops where you never stop learning.” But he added that producers are eager to share tips and tricks of hemp cultivation so that farmers don’t have to repeat mistakes.
Obtaining seed stock is an issue here in the U.S. Despite the federal government giving the green light for hemp growth, cultivation and marketing, viable seed is still a controlled substance. It cannot be transported across state lines. For that reason, most seed for now will be imported from Canada or Europe.
Some farmers have gotten rather creative in securing seed. Doug Fine, author of Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, joined by Skype and told us of a farmer who started by ordering hemp bird seed, supposedly nonviable and therefore legal. He planted it with a 3 percent success rate. By the second year, he had 80 percent germination and a viable cultivar.
“It seems a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ protocol has been the modus operandi for much of the seed generation,” Fine said. And while results can be a mixed bag in areas, citing Tennessee, he also indicated there is “tons of great seed” available. Though estimates are 7–14 years before a uniform and stable seed stock is developed.
Industrial hemp policy, law and agronomy continues to shape-shift daily. As recently as August 23, the federal government determined hemp can be certified organic if grown in compliance with Amendment 7606 of the Farm Bill, after rescinding a similar determination earlier.
Keep up to date with the next Industrial Hemp Farming Basics & Hemp in WA State presentation by the positively enthusiastic Beckerman at Olympia Timberland Library on Oct. 24.