Hawaii farmers worry USDA’s federal hemp program will be cost-prohibitive, less protective

The state of Hawaii will end its industrial hemp pilot program at the end of October, and instead steer farmers toward applying for U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses.

Gov. David Ige signed a bill that would legalize hemp production throughout the state after Hawaii’s last legislative session this summer.

An agriculture department spokesperson told Hemp Industry Daily that Ige’s administration and the legislature worked together to ensure the state could meet the October 31, 2020 deadline previously set by the 2018 Farm Bill. But the state had already made the decision to allow hemp farmers to grow through the USDA program when states were granted a reprieve to continue their pilot programs until September 2021.

Proponents of building a stronger hemp industry in Hawaii had hoped that the crop would restore the island state’s deep agricultural tradition after the departure of sugar and pineapple crops left tens of thousands of acres fallow. The state’s economy has been especially hard-hit during the coronavirus pandemic because its number one industry, tourism, has been essentially shut down, causing widespread job loss and food insecurity for Hawaiians.

But now, some of the state’s hemp farmers are concerned that the federal hemp production program will be too costly and that the lack of local oversight will mean more risks.

The less-stringent federal program could include more restrictions, pointing to the rule that states that the third time a crop tests too high for THC, growers can lose their license, according to West Hawaii Today.

Further, some growers are concerned that the USDA program won’t protect local farmers, allowing farms and companies with no native Hawaiian affiliation to buy Hawaii farmland to grow hemp and take advantage of the “made in Hawaii” without money returning to the state.

“I worry that it sets us up for hemp to be just a resource that is extracted from Hawaii,” said Gail Baber, a Big Island hemp grower who was one of the first in the state to be licensed through the pilot program.

According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, not everyone fears the new USDA rules and instead welcome the changes compared to what they considered a “highly restrictive” pilot program compared to other states, which among other things prohibited the movement of harvested leafy and floral material off of the licensed land area.

“Certain growers would have rather remained under the pilot program despite its restrictions for another year, but I do not think they are representative of the majority of growers in the state, as serious producers need the ability to harvest and move floral material for processing in order to monetize,” said Shelley Choy, the hemp program coordinator for Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture.

Hawaii’s hemp farmers will have to wait until the 2021 legislative session to push for a state program.

Meanwhile, farmers can apply for the USDA program online. USDA program licenses will take effect Nov. 1.