More than 600 people are getting involved in the hemp industry this year in Michigan.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued 600 industrial hemp licenses to farmers during four day-long licensing events held at the end of April.
Though industrial hemp is now legal in Michigan and the U.S., the federal government is still developing the rules for a national hemp program. Rather than wait until 2020 to start the industrial hemp industry in Michigan, officials decided to launch a pilot program using a provision in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.
The program garnered little to no interest before hemp was legalized nationally through the 2018 Farm Bill, said Gina Alessandri, pesticide and plant pest management division director for MDARD.
“This is very different,” Alessandri said. “I think we knew there was going to be a lot of interest. I don’t think we have a good grasp of what to expect as to the interest level long-term.”
Alessandri will eventually oversee the formal industrial hemp program in Michigan, once the federal government issues its rules and then later approves Michigan’s program. How long that will take is unclear; state officials said they’ll continue the pilot program until formal rules are in place.
For now, Michigan farmers are allowed to grow hemp for research purposes under the 2014 Farm Bill. What research means, in this case, is more loosely defined.
“It’s not research in the true sense of the word research,” Alessandri said, explaining there is no scientific data collection process that accompanies the hemp pilot program.
Instead, hemp farmers will submit a final report at the end of the year to MDARD on the success they’ve had that year using different soil types, genetics and pest management systems.
“It’s more informative than anything. If there were any red flags that we learned through growers of their experiences, we’d have to evaluate what we do with the information,” Alessandri said.
In order to grow hemp in Michigan this year, farmers have to register with the state and obtain a license. The grower registration fee is $100, and a license to process and handle hemp costs $1,350.
Hemp is related to marijuana, but is genetically different and contains a maximum of 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the active component in marijuana that causes psychoactive effects. Hemp is valued for its fiber — but the entire plant can be used to make a variety of products including fabric, carpeting, insulation, livestock feed and plastics. It is also a source of a hot product in the alternative therapy market — cannabidiol, or CBD oil. CBD oil can also be extracted from marijuana, which makes its regulation difficult for officials.
At the end of the growing season farmers will have to have their crop tested to make sure the plants are at or below the legal definition of hemp — which is 0.3 percent THC.
The state is still identifying the standards for testing, Alessandri said. If the product fails those tests three times, the crop will have to be destroyed or confiscated by the state. It cannot be sold into the medical marijuana market, Alessandri said.
If a farmer’s hemp does pass the concentration tests, they can send it out of the state to be processed — or have it processed here.
Michigan farmers are on their own to find their seeds. Other states with hemp pilot programs have published lists of reputable hemp seed.
“This is so new for us. We don’t have a credible list of sources to share,” Alessandri said, explaining MDARD was focused on licensing farmers to launch a pilot program this growing season. “We left it up to the growers. We made it their responsibility to do their due diligence.”
Unlike industrial hemp’s cousin — marijuana — there are far fewer outdoor growing restrictions. With both recreational and medical marijuana, any out door farms must be secured with locked gates and fences — and must be grown out of the public’s view.
Hemp requires no fences or gates, just a sign that indicates it’s a part of the state’s industrial hemp program with the farmer’s name and license numbers.
State officials are keeping track of every hemp farm location.