Maine's hemp farmers want to grow their biz, but rules loom

Patrick Whittle
Associated Press
This May 13, 2019 photo provided by LoveGrown Agricultural Research LLC, shows a greenhouse nursery area for organic hemp seedling production in Farmington, Maine. Hemp farmers in Maine and around the country are grappling with new laws as the industry comes into compliance with new federal rules.

PORTLAND, Maine - Hemp growers in Maine are concerned that new rules governing the crop could hold back the growth of an industry that is already the largest in New England.

States around the country are grappling with the changing legal landscape surrounding hemp since the 2018 Farm Bill directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create national regulations for the product of the plant. The popularity of products made from hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, has fueled the growth.

In Maine and elsewhere, state regulators are looking to bring their state industries into compliance with looming federal rules. But many Pine Tree State growers believe the state is adding onerous fees and strict testing requirements that could squelch the budding industry before it reaches its full potential.

One concern is Maine's proposed fee structure, which is twice as expensive as the old one and amounts to $100 per acre — twice the current figure, said Erica Haywood, co-founder of Maine Hemp Farmers Association and a Farmington grower. Another concern: The state is considering cutting the small amount of psychoactive THC that is allowable in hemp to so low a figure that many current farmers wouldn't be able to sell their crop, said Haywood and others.

"There should be opportunities for people not to have to destroy their crop if the THC is over the limit," Haywood said. "We are keen to work with regulators, especially for the benefit of small farmers."

Maine is home to more than 170 hemp growers and about 2,000 acres of farmed hemp. The state's industry is dwarfed by the major players in the hemp business, such as Colorado and Montana, where tens of thousands of acres are grown.

States all over the country are making changes to come into compliance with the federal laws, said Joy Beckerman, principal of Hemp Ace International, a New York-based consulting group.

"It's very important so that the farmers can access the benefits and protection, not the least of which is access to federal crop insurance," she said. "That's why it's so important to get these rules."

And interest in hemp and cannabis products are on the rise in Maine and elsewhere in New England because of the growth of the CBD industry and the spreading legalization of marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same plant, and there is considerable overlap among users of both, but marijuana contains much more psychoactive THC.

Hemp is also now legal at the federal level, while marijuana is not. Beyond CBD products, hemp is used to make protein boosters for smoothies, rope, clothing and many other products. Maine's industry is almost entirely dedicated to CBD and oil products.

The new state rules are designed to ease Maine's hemp growers into the new federal regulations, which will require the low THC levels, said Gary Fish, the state's horticulturist. The higher license fees are to ensure the Maine hemp program has enough revenue to stay afloat, he said.

"This has to be a self-funded program. There are no general fund moneys or grants to fund the program," Fish said. "And we have to be compliant with the federal level."

Maine is collecting feedback on its proposed rules until Jan. 20. The federal government is also taking comments on its own rules proposal until Jan. 29.

Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman, a farmer who does not grow hemp, said the state needs hemp rules that protect growers of all sizes for the state's nascent industry to grow.

"It's an industry that could really help rural Maine if the rules allow for the small and the medium farmers as well as the large hemp farmers," Hickman said. "It's got a lot of potential. It's a big deal. And the people who have a lot money invested know it's a big deal."