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Happy Hemp History Week! An Update on Progress Made Toward Regenerative Hemp Production in Massachusetts

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 June Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, Marty Dagoberto, Bill Braun, Jason Valcourt, and Doug Cook of NOFA/Mass

Hemp History Week (June 3-9) celebrates agricultural hemp with nationwide education, advocacy and grassroots events. This year, NOFA/Mass is celebrating this especially exciting 10th annual Hemp History Week.

This year is special because the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in December, included the legislation S. 2667, The Hemp Farming Act. With its passage, hemp production was officially legalized in the United States. So this year’s Hemp History Week is the first in this new landscape of federally-legal agricultural hemp! The Act defined hemp as cannabis sativa containing no more than 0.3% teatrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight and redefined hemp from a Controlled Substance to an agricultural commodity, removing it from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

While this is the first federal act to legalize industrial hemp, legalization has been taking place in a patchwork manner across various states, starting with North Dakota in 1999, which legalized hemp just one year after Canada. Massachusetts has been slow to lift restrictions on this crop, however, and after an 80 year hiatus, a once-thriving industry in our Commonwealth has vanished, along with a wealth of plant genetics and farmer knowledge about crop cultivation. We are just now setting out on only the second season in which it is once again legal to grow a hemp crop in Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, Massachusetts farmers have responded quickly to the possibilities that hemp offers for soil health, crop rotation diversity, and farm income diversification. Organizations like NOFA/Mass and SEMAP are working hard to help farmers gather the needed knowledge and resources to get started.

A Multi-Purpose Crop

1913 image comparing plant fibers used in textile production. Image provided by USDA and printed in a household arts textbook.Agricultural hemp is an incredibly versatile crop with enormous promise for replacing a variety of non-renewable inputs into a wide array of industrial products, for revitalizing rural communities, and for building soil health.

Simply put, hemp isgreat at photosynthesis. Hemp is one of the fastest-growing plant species used in agricultural production and creates very strong fibers, which was how humans began using the plant 10,000 years ago-- but the plant actually has a myriad of uses.  “It can be refined into a variety of sustainable commercial products including paper, textiles, clothing, food, nutraceuticals, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, and animal feed,” according to the official Hemp History Week website.

While much of the recent focus on hemp has been around its application as a medicinal plant for healing people and pets (via cannabidiol - CBD - and other phytocannabinoids), the soil health community has been keenly interested in the capacity of hemp for healing degraded and polluted soils. Hemp is well-known to be one of the best phytoremediation plants and can be used to heal the soil from chemical and heavy metal pollution, especially in conjunction with soil microbial inoculants.  The plant also holds great promise for restoring soil carbon to agricultural land. According to some initial results from a Rodale study on organic hemp production, hemp is particularly effective at shading out weeds, including aggressive perennial weeds. For organic minimum-till growers who are searching for effective strategies for weed management in tillage-reduced systems hemp holds promise for improved weed suppression, increased cover crop diversity, and as a great winter-kill soil protector / mulch producer.

Local Hemp Variety Trials

One of the greatest losses of the hemp prohibition period is the loss of farmer-owned genetics and varietals. Hemp is a crop with an abundance of traits and uses, and just as adult-use cannabis has famously been bred to produce potent, abundant, and even flavorful flowers for the discerning consumer’s enjoyment, the hemp plant can be bred for its various purposes as well-- for instance, large, nutritious seeds, fibers that can be processed into high R-value insulation batts, or especially soft fibers for clothing (just to name a few uses).

Of course, there are a wide array of varieties adapted to other parts of the world, but the regionalized varieties grown in Massachusetts’ once-thriving rope and textile industry have been lost (including the identity of the hemp variety used to grow the paper on which the founding fathers penned the Declaration of Independence).  

Into this void have stepped multinational corporations, which are seeking to control the genetics of the hemp seed supply through proprietary ownership. “So far, it has been hard to find varietals that are public domain because the market has gone from 0-60, and so many large corporations have entered the marketplace seeking to control the genetics for profit,” says Bill Braun. Braun is a NOFA/Mass Board member, co-owner of Ivory Silo Farm and the founder and Executive Director of the Freed Seed Foundation. He has been working with the Southeast Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP) and Charlotte Hamlin-- artist, researcher and lecturer in the Textile Design and Fiber Arts Program at UMass Dartmouth--  to explore industrial hemp for fiber applications. “While CBD has garnered most of the attention around market potential in Massachusetts,” he explained, “agricultural hemp has the potential to create a sea change in terms of regionalized sustainable fibershed.”

“But before we get the hemp acreage into production, we need regionalized varietals and seed supply that is farmer-owned and farmer-controlled.”

The trial consists of 1/8th of an acre with three varietals. Ivory Silo Farm will direct-seed the hemp varietals, grow out the crop, tend it, mow it, bale it and provide it to Charlotte Hamlin who will process, spin, and weave the hemp. Braun and Hamlin will each evaluate the varietals for their characteristics-- agronomic for Braun, fiber quality for Hamlin. “From this we hope to develop a small regionalized breeding population of seeds that can be shared with other farmers,” Braun explained.

“The legalization of hemp cultivation created some interesting opportunities for Southeastern Massachusetts as an historic textile region,” says Karen Schwalbe, Executive Director of SEMAP. “Early adopters of hemp cultivation have primarily focused on CBD oil but we think the opportunity for hemp fiber production has long-term potential.  We are excited to partner with the Freed Seed Federation to trial locally appropriate fiber hemp varieties to help identify successful varieties that will belong to the entire community. “

Hemp Policy in Massachusetts

Currently the greatest importer of hemp, the United States already ranks third in the world in hemp production (behind Canada and China), but due to legalization timelines, aside from Vermont, the Northeast is lagging behind in production. To help move hemp production forward in Massachusetts, NOFA/Mass is working with a coalition of sustainable hemp advocates to urge state legislators to remove barriers to growing hemp in 2019.

This work is necessary because the commonwealth’s current hemp program puts our farmers at a sharp competitive disadvantage compared to neighboring states like Vermont.  First and foremost, a major challenge for would-be hemp farmers is that hemp cultivation is currently not eligible for the agricultural tax rate. If their land is already in "chapter 61A" (decreased taxes for agricultural use), they may be required take it out of that status in order to grow a hemp crop. This gives local towns the right to purchase the land if the town wants that land. Because hemp is not covered by 61A it also cannot be grown on APR (agricultural preservation restriction) land. Hemp farmers have even been told that they cannot transport their hemp crop over a tract of APR land!

The Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy (Mass. State Legislature) is currently considering a bill which would fix these major problems, and is also considering three other important related bills, explained at the below link. Please contact your legislators and ask them to push for these bills to move ASAP. To read more about state-level hemp advocacy and to send a message to your state legislators, please visit and share our action page at https://actionnetwork.org/letters/help-massachusetts-farmers-grow-hemp-cbd

Another major hurdle for farmers is that there is currently no legal way for farmers to sell their hemp crop to customers. There is incredible demand for CBD-infused topical salves and tinctures, but farmers cannot sell these or any other hemp products at farmers’ markets. The Department of Agriculture (MDAR) has a permitting structure for growing and processing hemp, but has not yet developed or issued a license for retail sales. Please contact MDAR and ask them to issue retail licenses for hemp ASAP or - better yet - remove the requirement altogether. Farmers don’t need permits to sell herbs, flowers, or any other agricultural commodity. Why should they need one for (verified) hemp?

NOFA/Mass is proud to be a founding member of the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association, which formed after several growers met at a NOFA/Mass hemp workshop in late 2018. The Association was formed to explore sustainable regional scale collaboration on cultivation and processing of hemp under the new Farm Bill, and has helped to identify the regulatory challenges facing would-be hemp farmers in Massachusetts.  

Organic Hemp Education

Organic farmers have a potential knowledge advantage in Massachusetts, since the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources currently does not register any pesticides of any kind to be used on hemp (not even OMRI-approved ones). In this context, it is an asset to have experience with and understanding of organic growing systems.  For those who want to certify their crop, Baystate Organic Certifiers is now offering certification for organic hemp.

Since 2018, NOFA/Mass has held three full-day workshops on growing hemp in the field organically, averaging 100 attendees each. Speakers have included Brendan Beer, a commercial hemp grower in Vermont, Taryn LaScola, Director of Crops & Pest Services for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) and Dr. Heather Darby of the University of Vermont, who researches agricultural hemp production.

On August 10, we will offer a full-day intensive at the NOFA  Summer Conference with commercial hemp grower Brendan Beer (register now). The intensive will explore many aspects of hemp cultivation and care. From genetics, transplant care, soil preparation, and fertility needs, all the way to pest and disease management, harvesting and extracting CBD oil on the farm, proper harvest windows and crop quality for a legal and marketable product.  

Also, on Sunday at the conference, Stephanie Boucher, VT-based clinical herbalist and cannabis coach will present a workshop on creating effective CBD remedies in your own home kitchen. Explore the hemp plant’s phytochemistry and extraction techniques, and learn how to accurately dose finished products. Participants will get hands-on experience making a few hemp-based herbal remedies, and get to take home their creations.

On October 19, 2019 Dr. Heather Darby and Keith Morris will come back to MA for another full-day workshop on hemp production; keep an eye on our facebook page or Events page for more details on that event.

As always, please keep your NOFA/Mass membership up to date to support our policy and advocacy work as we continue to do our part to revive the knowledge of this crop and its potential for a thriving regenerative local agricultural economy.

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