If you open a dictionary to look up the definition of “conundrum,” you may very likely find a picture of a hemp plant. Not that hemp is a puzzle in itself; but federal and state regulations surrounding hemp seem to be causing more head scratching than anything.

For the uncertain, hemp is a member of the cannabis family, and a cousin to marijuana, but with the THC chemical that has mind-bending characteristics. For hemp to be hemp, it cannot contain more than .03% THC by weight, or it is cast into the marijuana category, and a completely different set of laws determine its future.

But the laws on hemp are relatively new, and federal regulations are being written as you read this. Hemp, itself, is not new, and had been a source of fiber for rope-making for years. But when marijuana regulations came about, hemp was cast into a shadow with a cloudy future.

Had it not been for the ratcheting down of the US tobacco industry, and many Kentucky tobacco barns sitting idle, and many tobacco farmers looking for a new source of income, hemp may still be in its state of limbo. But with the political clout of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, looking after his tobacco constituency, hemp appeared in the 2014 Farm Bill as a candidate for university-based research, under governmental auspices.

And in the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp rose to a prominent position as an authorized cash crop with the USDA charged with monitoring markets and market prices, as well as creating a crop insurance program for prospective producers. And the USDA said it would have all those regulations ready to go for the 2020 growing season, including approval of state government plans to monitor farmers who apply for licenses to produce it, and ensure the THC content does not surpass the .03% upper limit.

Well, that is all well and good. Except 43 states already have hemp programs, authorized by their state legislature, with regulations submitted to USDA for approval. But USDA says those plans will not be considered for approval until its staff members write the over-riding federal regulations, and publish them for comment and implementation later this year.

After all, USDA says hemp can only be grown in 2019 under the research regulations of the 2014 Farm Bill, not yet under the commercial regulations proposed in the 2018 Farm Bill. Ooooops!

Just like the drone industry, which was way ahead of the Federal Aviation Administration in writing regulations, farmers will be planting commercial hemp this year as a cash crop, under terms of state regulations which have been approved. And here in Illinois, the Governor and Director of Agriculture Tuesday announced applications for growing it would be available on a state website.

So farmers, following the letter of the state law, will be violating the letter of the federal law, defined as a conundrum.

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Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.


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