HARTFORD, CT — Legislators on the Environment Committee last week were urged to jump on board – quickly – to allow Connecticut farmers, especially the next generation of farmers, to become part of the growing list of states that have embraced cultivation of hemp as a way to revitalize the farming industry.
The committee heard testimony on three different bills that would authorize the growing, cultivation, production and processing of hemp in Connecticut. Currently, only Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont allow farmers to grow hemp under state supervision.
Hemp was grouped with marijuana and was declared a Schedule 1 drug in 1970. That, according to advocates of hemp, increased misconception of the plant, which comes from the same family of plant as marijuana, but does not include enough THC to get a person “high.”
“Connecticut is sitting on top of a huge goldmine,” John Roe, a retired farmer from Canada who lives in Stonington said. He told the committee that Connecticut has the “right soil conditions, right climate conditions for hemp cultivation.
“Hemp will thrive” in Connecticut, Roe said.
Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, told Roe that an emergency room doctor he knows urged him to vote against the legislation.
“He feels the majority of the visits he sees is because of some sort of substance abuse issue,” Gresko said, in a back-and-forth conversation with Roe. “His parting words to me were look at Colorado.”
“How do you quell the fear that hemp growth will exacerbate the problem,” Gresko asked Roe.
Roe said he was a farmer, not a physician, but that he wouldn’t classify hemp as the type of dangerous drug in a category with harder substances such as fentanyl.
One concern that farmers, officials and advocates of hemp farming expressed to the committee is that whatever bill finally comes out of committee is one that addresses both current state and federal guidelines concerning hemp cultivation to keep the process from getting bogged down in paperwork.
The 2018 federal Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp and allows states to submit a plan and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp in their state.
Melody Currey, acting commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, testified that the department “has been working with Governor (Ned) Lamont’s Administration to determine the most workable pathway forward on this issue that addresses the specific criteria established in the 2018 Farm Bill and can be accomplished within resources available to the Department.”
Lamont’s budget included three new positions in the Department of Agriculture and $136,000 in funding to develop and regulate a hemp program. In addition, one lab technician position is provided to the Agricultural Experiment Station to conduct testing of the hemp being grown to ensure compliance of mandated restrictions on the product.
She said that over the last several months, the “Department has reached out to sister agencies in other states, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and others to determine what has worked successfully in their states, and what has not. There are many ways to stand up a hemp program, and we need to do it in a way that will be workable in Connecticut.”
Bryan Hurlburt, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association (CFBA), urged the committee to pass one of the hemp bills quickly and get it to the full General Assembly and the governor for his signature because “there is an opportunity for farmers to take advantage of this crop this growing season.”
“For a farmer to plant hemp in the field by early June, there are a number of steps that need to be taken in advance to meet that deadline, including the USDA waiver, seed procurement, regulation development, financing, and field preparation,” Hurlburt said.
Hurlburt said Connecticut’s U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and Jahana Hayes are working across party lines to pressure USDA to develop and adopt regulations quickly on federal hemp growing laws.
Hayes’ office said the Congresswoman still has not taken a position on the issue.
“In the absence of a USDA program, we request that the proposal include language that would allow Connecticut to develop a pilot program under the 2014 Farm Bill,” Hurlburt asked the committee. “This would still allow farmers to grow hemp this year and allow the state to be prepared to launch the fully legalized program when the federal program is ready for our application.”
Many committee members asked those testifying to explain, in layman’s language, the difference between hemp and marijuana.
Hurlburt explained: “Industrial hemp is not marijuana, although both are members of the cannabis plant family. Industrial hemp is differentiated by the low concentration of THC, set by federal statute at maximum of 0.3 percent THC of the dried weight of the plant, marijuana has a THC level of 5 – 25 percent. Industrial hemp is generally used for fiber and CBD extraction, but has over 25,000 different uses.
Hurlburt said CFBA believes hemp as a lifeline for the agricultural economy, providing a much-needed cash crop to a market that is strapped for cash and markets.
He said research show that an acre of hemp could generate the following yields: 500 lbs to 1500 lbs of dried flowers; prices between $30 – $100/lb; estimated revenues between $37,500 – $150,000 per acre.
“Having a high value crop would keep farmers on the land, be an incentive for farmers to put more land into production, attract new farmers to the industry, stabilize farm incomes, add business opportunities for agricultural support businesses, employ more people, support the opportunity for value-added production, and generate more revenue for the state,” Hurlburt said.
Also encouraging the committee to move quickly on legislation was Troy Sprang, vice president at J.E. Shepard Companies, a continually operating farming company in Connecticut for over 126 years.
“There are jobs at stake and significant economic development growth opportunities in the manufacturing and production area of hemp for Connecticut businesses, if we move quickly,” Sprang said.
But Sprang, like others said the bills need language work to address potential federal roadblocks.
“A state’s plan to license and regulate hemp can only commence once the Secretary of USDA approves that state’s plan. If Connecticut does not devise a hemp regulatory program, USDA will construct a regulatory program under which hemp cultivators in states like ours must apply for licenses and comply with a federally-run program.” Sprang told the committee. “We prefer a state-run regulatory framework where the rules are clear, and we can comply easily and prosper. We also ask that a licensing or registration framework is practical and meets the changing and dynamic environment of today’s economy.”
While bill language was a major concern at the hearing what was repeated over and over again is the potential for job growth in the farming industry if Connecticut moves fast.
Voluntown First Selectwoman Tracey Hanson urged the committee to not miss the opportunity.
“Right now, some of the largest farms in town are struggling dairy farms,” Hanson said. “Many farmers are aging and are lacking a younger generation to take over current farm businesses.”
Hanson said passing a hemp bill “will be a key to revitalizing the farming industry in Voluntown and in other Connecticut farm towns.”