Federal Farm Bill legalizes industrial hemp farming

Cultivation in San Benito County could begin soon.

With the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill into federal law on Dec. 20, industrial hemp is once again a legal crop in the United States. Congressman Jimmy Panetta, a member of House Committee on Agriculture, helped craft the bill.

“This is a big step in the right direction when it comes to the national acceptance of cannabis,” said Panetta via email on the hemp provision. “But we still have a long way to go when it comes to legalization at the federal level.”

Under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, most industrial hemp cultivation, buying and selling became illegal. Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp could only be grown by educational facilities for research purposes.

Although it’s the same species of plant as cannabis, hemp is low in THC, a cannabinoid with psychoactive properties. Though hemp is high in CBD, another cannabinoid thought to have medicinal value, the plant has many other uses including for fiber, clothing, construction material, paper and nutrition.

“Hemp is an environmentally better product for paper as it takes 90 days to grow, unlike a tree,” said cannabis consultant Elia Salinas.  

Salinas said she has had several potential growers, including several San Benito County residents, contact her to learn about cultivating hemp. Up to 2,000 acres of county farmland is being considered for hemp, she said.

Registration to farm hemp within the state begins this month and any local operations must go through the county, said San Benito County Agricultural Commissioner Karen Overstreet. Farmers who intend to grow hemp will need to enter into a memorandum of understanding with a university , or without an MOU must wait until the state sets regulations and pay of fee of $700 to $900, Salinas said.

San Benito County Farm Bureau President Pat Wirz said he had no problem with hemp farming.

“If someone can raise the crop and make money from it, more power to them,” Wirz said.

Lee Scazighini, a farmer in south San Benito County, is interested in growing hemp. Though he doesn’t know what the profit margin would be, he said he is “all for it.”

“I don’t see any arguments against it,” he said. “I would consider growing it. Our ground is good.” Scazighini had considered growing cannabis, but a permitted greenhouse was not something he wanted to invest in, as he was not guaranteed a cultivation permit.

There is some concern about cross-pollination of hemp with cannabis, which could increase the amount of THC in hemp and decrease it in cannabis.

“Once hemp has above 0.3 percent of THC the plant is considered marijuana and will be destroyed,” Salinas said.

Wirz pointed out that using seed breeders could reduce potential cross-pollination problems, as growers would be purchasing seed instead of using seed from their own crop.

“Most commercial farmers don’t raise their own seed, most of them get their seed from a seed company,” Wirz said. “I imagine if hemp business gets going on a large scale you are going to have hemp seed breeders.”

Ag Commissioner Overstreet told BenitoLink that in San Benito County, cannabis must be grown indoors, so there should be little or no cross-pollination. However, illegal outdoor grows could still cause issues for future hemp farmers, as cross-pollination would then be possible.



Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.