Many unanswered questions surround the state's research efforts involving industrial hemp well before a single seed can be sown, prospective growers and state regulators said Thursday.
Arkansas lawmakers approved the research program in early 2017 but, because of a variety of delays, the program didn't take effect until Aug. 30.
The state Plant Board, which will be in charge of administering the program, hasn't yet received an application from any prospective growers or processors, Mary Smith, director of the board's seed division, told members of the hemp committee. The board is a division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department.
Licenses will run from July 1 through June 30 each year, with renewals due every June 15.
The state hasn't set a limit on the number of licenses that will be issued or on the size of research plots.
Growing hemp was illegal in the U.S. until the 2014 farm bill approved by Congress allowed states to set up research programs that also would involve private growers of the fiber. Some 40 states have set up similar programs since then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The 2018 farm bill now being worked on by Congress would lessen hemp restrictions even more.
An amendment by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., defines hemp as an agricultural commodity and removes it from the list of federally controlled substances. McConnell's amendment states the regulators of hemp production and makes hemp farmers eligible to apply for crop insurance. Hemp researchers also could apply for grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hemp is a cousin to marijuana but generally contains no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that gives the "high" from marijuana use.
State regulators will inspect growers' fields, to make sure the THC restrictions are met. Any hemp with THC levels above 0.3 will be destroyed.
Supporters of the program say hemp can be a new cash crop for farmers, and can be especially lucrative if the end product is hemp oil. Hemp also can be processed into paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, food and animal food.
Jody Hardin, a prominent Arkansas farmer now in Northwest Arkansas, said the state should consider establishing buffer zones to protect hemp research plots focused on CBD [cannabidiol] oil production from potential pollination contamination from other types of hemp research fields.
Barth Grayson, a farmer in Bald Knob, agreed, saying a 20-mile zone might be necessary, because producing hemp for oils is far different from producing industrial hemp.
Rick Cartwright, who represents the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture on the Plant Board and hemp committee, said prospective hemp growers will need to weigh carefully where they plant their crops. Without mentioning specific herbicides, Cartwright noted that the state has had problems with herbicides moving off target and damaging other crops.
He also said problems with any pest, whether a weed or an insect, will only increase as more hemp is planted.
While Arkansas regulators said they could limit acreage, Cartwright also cautioned that a grower might need 500 acres to adequately test the commercial viability of hemp and shouldn't face restrictions.
The Arkansas research effort focuses on an array of topics, including the best planting season for hemp, type of soils, the best pest-management tools, seed varieties and harvest methods.
"The key point is, this is about research," said V.O. "Butch" Calhoun, who became director of the Plant Board in August.
The Plant Board notes on its website that prospective growers and processors do so at their own risk.
"Because our research is in its beginning stages, there remains much for us to learn," according to the board. "There are many uncertainties, so be mindful that there is high risk of financial or other loss at this early stage in the program. The state Plant Board does not offer any financial assistance to participants."
Business on 09/21/2018
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