Maryland hemp growers urged to work together
DAVIDSONVILLE, Md. — Growers must work together to build a new and profitable hemp industry in Maryland, several agricultural and industry leaders said last week.
The Maryland Farm Bureau hosted a discussion on Jan. 15 for farmers interested in the newly legal crop. In the fall, the state completed its first year of a research program in which more than 60 farmers raised hemp, whose production was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill.
“This has to be an industry of sharing, not an industry of keeping secrets,” said Andrew Ristvey, a University of Maryland Extension agent working with the hemp program.
Concerns from those in the audience ranged from what to do if a crop exceeds the federal THC limit — it will be destroyed — to the first significant legislative battle the nascent industry may face in Annapolis: a forthcoming bill sponsored by Baltimore County legislators and supported by a “well-connected neighborhood” seeking to demand large buffers between hemp farms and residential homes, said Kevin Atticks, head of the newly formed Maryland Hemp Coalition, which will lobby for the industry in Annapolis.
“The number that’s been thrown around is 2 miles,” he said.
Growers may also need to contend with cross-pollination concerns in the near future, not just between farmers growing hemp for CBD oil and those growing it for grain and fiber, but between fiber growers and producers in the medical marijuana industry. Pollen drift lawsuits have become a growing problem across the country as the hemp and medical marijuana industries expand.
Hemp and marijuana are different strains of cannabis sativa, though legally hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive element that makes marijuana users high. Marijuana growers and those raising hemp for CBD oil grow exclusively female plants. Farmers who grow hemp for fiber and grain have no such concern.
Male plants from those fields can produce hundreds of thousands of grains of pollen, which can travel great distances and reach unsexed, female plants, lowering the levels of THC in marijuana and CBD in hemp.
“You could get pollinated from 20 to 30 miles away,” said Jim Drews, head of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s turf and seed section.
Drews also runs the state’s hemp program. The region’s heavy humidity may help to mitigate the risk of unwanted pollination somewhat, he said.
The department has considered creating a map that would show all the state’s hemp farmers and what, precisely, they’re growing, but that could spark privacy concerns, Drew said. The future of hemp farming, he said, is likely a tri-crop, which could produce grain, fiber and CBD and would lessen cross-pollination concerns.
Farmers also met two men who recently created the Maryland Hemp Exchange, which proposes to sell farmers X-59 hemp seed and buy back the harvested crop, said Eryck Stamper, the exchange’s founder. He said his company is working with national hemp organizations and businesses in the food and textile industries.
“We want to build that industry here in Maryland,” he said.
Growers in the state raised hemp this past summer mostly for the CBD market, which has become inundated with product, Stamper said. Hemp farming for CBD is also more difficult, more “horticultural”, he said.
Colby Ferguson, government relations director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said he was skeptical about hemp’s future as a primary crop for growers in the state. More likely, hemp could be a smart way for farmers to diversify their operations, he said. He also said he’d choose to produce hemp grain rather than hemp flower, which is grown for CBD and other cannabinoids.
“I’m a realist, and I’m not easy to convince, and I’m still not convinced to be honest,” Ferguson said. “If we’re going to play in that game, Maryland has to have a strong market. … Building demand in Maryland is something we need to do.”