Hemp Harvest in Holtwood

Farmer Steve Groff, shows off some of his hemp harvest at his Cedar Meadow Farm in Holtwood Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020.

THE ISSUE

Industrial hemp is increasingly becoming an important crop for farmers in Lancaster County and across Pennsylvania. But it’s a tightly regulated industry, because of the connections between legally grown hemp and marijuana, which is “considered an illegal drug in Pennsylvania when not grown or used in an approved medical capacity,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro reported Sunday. The key for farmers is maintaining a sufficiently low level of the psychoactive substance THC in their hemp crops. But that’s no easy thing, Sauro reported.

Lancaster County has a rich agricultural heritage. Farmers here and across the nation are the unheralded folks who toil to provide us with food and other needed everyday products.

Their hours are long, the labor can be backbreaking and the profit margins — in a good year — are often just enough to get by.

This editorial board strongly supports farmers and local farmland preservation, and so we have been encouraged in recent years by Pennsylvania’s move to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp as a cash crop. They need all the options they can get in the ever-changing agricultural commodity market.

The state has been correct to move cautiously and tightly regulate aspects of industrial hemp farming, limiting licenses and staging inspections. But we believe we’re at a point when the reins can be loosened in one area.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sauro detailed, any industrial hemp plant “with a THC level above 0.3% is considered marijuana — a limit set within the federal Farm Bill, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, who regulate the hemp industry.”

So, hemp farmers whose crops are at or below that level are fine. But if the THC level is above 0.3% — a low limit that’s easy to accidentally exceed — the penalties can be devastating, local farmers told Sauro.

They are forced to destroy any crop fields that exceed the limit. And a state Department of Agriculture official must be on hand to witness the destruction.

Each acre destroyed can cost a farmer as much as $5,000, Erica Stark, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industrial Council, told Sauro. Others suggested even higher per-acre losses.

About 9% of lots tested across Pennsylvania in 2020 have had to be destroyed, Sauro reported.

“Of the 758 lots tested this year in Pennsylvania, 66 were above the legal THC limit,” he wrote. “Seven of those lots were in Lancaster County.”

This might seem like proper diligence on the state’s part, but the catch is that the regulated THC level of 0.3% appears to be arbitrary.

It’s well below a level that would cause any intoxicating effects, said Stark, who is unsure how the long-standing federal figure was derived.

“It’s very, very doubtful that people are going to get any psychoactive effect of cannabis at that percentage,” added Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Yet it’s the percentage that drives state Department of Agriculture policy.

“Pennsylvania’s program operates within the parameters of federal law and the USDA interim hemp rule,” Shannon Powers, a state spokeswoman, told Sauro.

There can be even worse ramifications of testing, if farmers’ industrial hemp has a THC level above 0.5%. That level is deemed “negligent,” and farmers can face the loss of their hemp permit or even prosecution, Stark told Sauro.

But, again, a THC level slightly above 0.5% is not considered high enough to make a person intoxicated, those in the industry say. The potential disciplinary actions are especially unfair, as Sauro detailed, because it is difficult for farmers to control the precise level of THC in their crop.

Holtwood farmer Steve Groff “makes every effort to meet regulations, using seeds that have been bred to produce crops with low THC,” Sauro reported. “Biology can differ slightly among plants, and Groff said his operation is open to varying weather conditions and other external factors that could play a role in pushing crops over the limit.”

“This is the frustration that is out there among farmers right now,” Groff said. “To me, frankly, it’s maddening.”

We understand that frustration. It is indeed maddening.

While we strongly oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania and do not want the availability of illegal drugs to unintentionally become more widespread, that is not the issue with this aspect of industrial hemp regulation. These farmers are simply trying to make a living via a burgeoning cash crop that is valued for its flowers, fibers, seeds and non-psychoactive CBD oil.

There are reasonable reforms we support.

First, the 0.3% THC limit enforced in Pennsylvania is unlikely to change unless it’s by an act of Congress. And that’s what U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, proposed earlier this month.

You won’t find us agreeing with Paul on much, but his Hemp Economic Mobilization Plan Act of 2020 would change the federal definition of hemp to raise the THC limit from 0.3% to 1%.

That would, according to Rand’s news release, “protect legitimate hemp farmers, processors, and transporters by requiring hemp shipments to contain a copy of the seed certificate showing the hemp was grown from 1% THC seed, and it would address current uncertainty by defining a margin of error for testing THC levels.”

It would be good news for Pennsylvania farmers.

Second, we agree with state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who wrote a letter to the USDA that suggests raising the negligence limit from 0.5% to 2%, Sauro reported.

“The 0.5% threshold is too low given that THC levels are subject to swings based on several factors, including location, weather and timing,” Redding wrote.

We completely agree. The current threshold is unfairly punitive.

These proposed changes would protect farmers and give them a better chance of maximizing their profits with industrial hemp.

We should all want farmers to succeed and give them all the fair help they can get in uncertain times. They are facing difficulties enough. We shouldn’t add arbitrarily conceived regulations to those difficulties. 

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