Monday, August 19, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 24
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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 6th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 23

Santa Barbara County sees spike in farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp

By ZAC EZZONE

While cannabis has been the subject of much debate in Santa Barbara County over the past year, there’s been less discussion on hemp, a variety of the plant. That may soon change, however, as farmers’ interest in the crop grows and as the county awaits federal cultivation regulations.


RESEARCHING HEMP
Over the last few months, more than a dozen farmers have signed agreements with Allan Hancock College to cultivate hemp for research purposes.
FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF PETR BROZ

Hemp is a variety of cannabis with a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent. The crop has a number of uses, including fiber, paper, and oils, the latter of which is often marketed as having medical benefits. 

Since Congress passed the farm bill in 2018, removing hemp’s status as an illegal substance, about 30 to 40 growers have reached out to the county inquiring about growing the crop, according to county Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Lottie Martin. 

“There has been quite a bit of interest,” Martin said. “[Interested farmers] are throughout the county. Some in Santa Maria, and the rest in mid-county, the Santa Ynez Valley.”

The farm bill provides two pathways for hemp cultivation while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) works on its regulatory plan. Growers can either participate in state-run pilot programs or grow hemp in conjunction with a research institution like Allan Hancock College. Santa Barbara County only allows the latter. 

In April, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced it was opening registration for counties permitting growers to participate in its pilot program. San Luis Obispo County opened hemp registration shortly after the state’s announcement. But about a month later, SLO County placed a moratorium on registration, citing a need to re-examine the process.

Santa Barbara County decided to only allow hemp cultivation for research purposes until the USDA releases its regulations this fall and the state subsequently submits its own regulatory plan to the federal government, Martin said.

“Some counties are moving forward with the state, but the process is hasty and not well defined,” Martin said. “So for our county, our hope was to slow it down and let the rules catch up and to let it move slowly.”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he has received a lot of inquiries from farmers interested in growing hemp over the last few months. Most of these farmers have either signed agreements for research projects or are waiting for the county to open the process to all growers, which will probably happen next year.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, said the association’s members have expressed some interest in growing hemp, but they haven’t asked the association to actively advocate on behalf of the crop yet.

If the county does green light hemp cultivation, attempts to regulate cannabis could get even more complicated. 

The county Board of Supervisors recently approved more stringent cannabis regulations on marijuana specifically, in response to residents’ concerns about the plant, including its odor. Supervisors capped the acreage of marijuana that can be grown in the county and prohibited its cultivation on smaller parcels of land in rural neighborhoods, among other changes.

However, the county won’t have the flexibility to implement these same sorts of regulations on hemp because it’s considered a crop, similar to lettuce, strawberries, or cauliflower, Lavagnino said. 

Navigating these challenges will prove difficult for the county whenever hemp cultivation becomes legal for all farmers. Until then, growing in conjunction with research institutions will remain the only option for county farmers interested in hemp. 

Farmers have had the option to grow hemp with research institutions since 2014; however, growers in the county haven’t taken an interest in this option until this year, Martin said. 

Since May, Hancock has signed agreements with about 12 to 14 growers to set up hemp research cultivation projects throughout the county, said Hancock President and Superintendent Kevin Walthers.  

“We essentially sat down with the farmers and said if you’re a local farmer, we’ll work with you on this pilot project just to see how it goes,” Walthers said. 

Through the partnership, the college provides the research expertise of a faculty member. Additionally, it creates an opportunity for students to go into the fields and conduct sampling that may relate to what they’re learning in their plant biology classes or other courses. 

The agreements the college signed with the farmers are in place for one year; after then, the college can decide whether to engage in a second round of agreements. But this could change based on the county’s actions regarding hemp.

“Maybe the county will write rules during this first year and everything changes and everybody goes through the county, and we’ll go back to doing what we do,” Walthers said. 

Staff Writer Zac Ezzone can be reached at zezzone@santamariasun.com.




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