As the final rule on hemp from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looms, lawmakers and top industry stakeholders are calling for an extension of states' hemp pilot programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Aug. 5, Patrick Atagi, the board chairman of the National Industrial Hemp Council, and Barbara P. Glenn, Ph.D., the CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), sent a letter to members of Congress asking for an extension of the pilot program through fiscal year 2021. They said failure to extend the program will leave hemp farmers “in a perilous situation through no fault of their own.”
States are currently permitted to operate under their pilot programs, which were established by the Agriculture Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill), until Oct. 31 of this year.
A provision to extend the pilot program was included in a recent House Agriculture Appropriations bill, Atagi and Glenn noted in their letter, but they said the bills may not be completed before the extension “is vitally needed.”
Their letter noted that states have worked over the past year to bring their hemp programs into compliance with the USDA’s interim final rule, which was published on Oct. 31, 2019.
“Notwithstanding this progress, many states will be unable to meet the forthcoming deadline of October 31, 2020,” they said in the letter. “These states have cited that due to the unprecedented national COVID-19 pandemic, state regulators have been unable to work with their state legislatures to acquire necessary statutory amendments.”
From Congress to the USDA
Meanwhile, in a separate letter to the USDA, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) has also called for an extension of states' pilot programs, as well as a delay in issuance of the final rule on hemp, until 2022. The USDA’s final rule on hemp is due to be issued by Nov. 1, 2021.
In a press release, Schumer said additional regulations amid the pandemic would “crush the budding hemp industry.”
“Regulating this rapidly emerging industry is a must, but the timing of new regulations is important and the current economic crisis must be considered,” Schumer said in the press release. “That’s why today I’m urging USDA to delay their issuance of a final rule until 2022 so the hemp industry across the country and in Upstate New York has a chance to grow and create good-paying jobs at a time when jobs are needed the most. Delaying new regulations will help pull New York along in the recovery process as the nation deals with the impacts of the pandemic.”
Schumer said that prior to the pandemic, the hemp industry in New York state had begun to show significant growth. However, farmers have reported having difficulties integrating regulations from the interim final rule into their operations.
The new regulations have increased costs for farmers, according to the press release. Compliance costs for reporting alone would be more than $17,000, according to USDA calculations, and testing would cost more than $700 per sample.
Schumer said these costs are too high as the state, as well as the country, continue grappling with an economic downturn.
Schumer also noted that implementing the interim final rule now will require states to alter their pilot program budgets to meet standards, which is something "states slammed with COVID-related issues simply cannot spare the time and resources for." He added that the small sampling time frame required in the interim final rule would push farmers to rush harvests and hire additional hands to help pull crops from the fields, which could contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
Read Schumer's full letter to the USDA here.