With the promotion of industrial hemp as a new cash crop for struggling farmers, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture is speeding up regulations for this new legal product, and the first producer licenses are expected to be approved in February.
Interested farmers are attending orientation sessions to learn about the lengthy paperwork, permits, testing and reporting requirements that the state’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry is putting in place to govern industrial hemp production in Louisiana, as part of a program that received overwhelming support from lawmakers earlier this year.
The regulatory requirements are lengthy – and oversight of growing operations is intense – as state officials seek to encourage hemp production as a means for farmers to diversify their crops while ensuring that none of the hemp growing operations turn into marijuana crops.
Especially in this first year, you’re going to see a lot of us. Angela Guidry, coordinator of the Louisiana Industrial Hemp Program at the Department of Agriculture, warned about inspections at a recent orientation session.
Hemp is a member of the cannabis plant family but contains only traces of the chemical compound THC, which causes a high in marijuana users. Hemp is used in textiles, fuel, clothing, body lotions, paper, rope, chemical absorbents, and other products.
To remain in compliance with Louisiana regulations on hemp cultivation, the THC content of the plants must not exceed 0.3%. Anything above this limit must be destroyed as a controlled substance, Guidry warned several times, telling orientation session participants that no harvesting can take place until the Department of Agriculture has conducted THC testing.
Justin Jones and his uncle, Joe Cook, plan to plant hemp on the family farm in the Benton area of northwest Louisiana. They want also to preserve the land that has been used to grow peas, corn, and okra for generations – and keep it in the family.
“My father, as he gets older, uses the land less and less. So , this is an opportunity to take the land and the equipment and use it wisely,” said Cook, 46, who lives in Atlanta and is taking leadership training. “It restores that connection to the land that was in danger of being broken.”
The men want to start with 2 to 5 acres. If things go well and hemp farming makes money, they expect the acreage to increase over time.
“The most important thing for us is to create a legacy,” said Jones, 31, an actor and singer in Los Angeles. “I think it’s a great way to bring everybody together.”
In fact, Congress paved the way for the hemp program in Louisiana and other states. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp by removing it from the federal government’s list of controlled substances, also giving states the option to develop a hemp program if the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves a state’s plan.
At least 47 states have enacted legislation to create industrial hemp programs. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain insisted on creating the state law.
The Department of Agriculture and Forestry indeed plans to issue the first annual licenses to hemp growers, and processors on Feb. Applicants must undergo a criminal background check. No one convicted of a crime in the past 10 years or a drug-related offense in the past two years is eligible, Guidry said.
Since hemp is not legal in Louisiana. So, the logistics of the start-up operation are complicated. Especially with growers bringing in hemp seeds or plants from other states or countries. Farmers cannot seek to purchase and transport these seeds until they have obtained a license from the Department of Agriculture, and the seeds will have to be certified by a laboratory to be approved.
Underlying each guidance point is a warning. Make sure that cultivation operations remain focused on hemp – and don’t go into marijuana production. In Louisiana, only 2 growers under contract with LSU and Southern University have license to grow marijuana for medical purposes.
Hemp fields must match with an official, state-issued sign identifying the crop as low THC industrial hemp. The Department of Agriculture promises to coordinate legal hemp operations with law enforcement agencies.
“We don’t want to have a problem with them stopping on your property and thinking it’s something else,” Guidry told future hemp growers.