By John Palmieri
An Oct. 31 deadline that would have brought an end to the federally-sponsored N.C. Industrial Hemp Pilot Program (HPP) was averted, to the relief of local hemp farmers.
Thanks to the last-minute action of the U.S. Congress, hemp programs nationwide were extended almost another year to September 2021. The program legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp and hemp products in the state. Led by the Industrial Hemp Commission (IHC) in North Carolina, the program began in 2015 with the passing of Senate Bill 313, which gave permission to establish rules and regulations regarding the cultivation and production of hemp to the IHC. The IHC handles the vetting and licensing of potential hemp farmers.
“Under state and federal laws, individuals must be issued a license to participate in the program,” Katie Ashley, the Cooperative Extension horticulture agent for Jackson County, said. “Growers in North Carolina who wish to cultivate industrial hemp shall submit an application for a license to the Industrial Hemp Commission, which must then be approved.”
The IHC also handles post-licensing operations, specifically compliance testing.
The need for compliance testing stems from the close relative of hemp – marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are both members of the species Cannabis sativa and are “indistinguishable purely by appearance.”
What sets the two apart is the percentage of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, better known by its acronym THC. In concordance with IHC regulation, for a member of C. sativa to be considered hemp, it must contain no more than .3 percent THC. Anything above this level is considered “hot,” and will be deemed illegal.
“We came close this year,” said Brent Hall, a local hemp farmer and owner-operator of Country Road Farms in Sylva.
Hall and his wife, Beth, are licensed hemp growers and have raised a crop for the past three years.
“We grew varieties of CBD hemp that were really, really strong in CBD, and we came pretty close to being hot,” Brent Hall said. “But we were compliant.”
As the running theme of 2020 seems to go, this year’s weather has not been the best for the crop.
“This year, the amount of rainfall has definitely had an effect on the crop,” Brent Hall said.
Pests, disease and mold have been the biggest issues they have faced, he said.
“All insects like hemp and certain insects like spider mites and caterpillars were breeding like crazy in the wet weather, so we had a higher population of insects than we would have in a drier year,” he said.
Along with insects, to properly harvest hemp for industrial use, it must air dry in open air. “When it came to harvest season this year, we had 80-90 percent humidity every day, and we lost some of our harvest due to the high humidity. We couldn’t get it dry quick enough, so we had some mold issues,” Hall said.
Most, if not all, Western North Carolina hemp farmers experienced these same problems this year, he said.
The state has been very helpful with their farming endeavors, Hall said.
“The state has done an amazing job leaning towards the farmer, and try to develop their rules and regulations based on what the farmer needs, and not so much what the federal government needs,” he said. “That gives us farmers a little peace of mind, that people in the state do want us to grow this.”
The state loses thousands of acres of arable land to both competition from other states and countries and the pine timber industry, especially down east, he said.
“That’s one reason the state allowed this program, to see if we can keep some of this farmland in yearly cultivation, and not lose it to the timber industry,” Hall said.
The Halls knew that the HPP was not a “forever program,” but they remain hopeful that come next year’s expiration date that North Carolina will develop its own guidelines regarding the cultivation of hemp.
Country Road Farms is located off U.S. 23/441, just south of Dillsboro.
John Palmieri is a senior at Western Carolina University majoring in anthropology and minoring in political science and Cherokee studies and a Sylva Herald intern.