Maine abandons plan to double per-acre fees on hemp farmers

By Penelope Overton, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald | Feb 12, 2020
Photo by: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald Taryn Marcus weighs hemp branches to determine the price at Sheepscot Farm in Whitefield last September. In just three years, Maine went from less than a quarter-acre of hemp in cultivation to 2,700 acres in 2019.

The state agriculture department has shelved plans to double per-acre hemp cultivation fees and adopt strict new THC limits that mirror pending federal regulations after Maine farmers complained such changes would force them out of business.

“The message was clear – 2020 is not the year to increase fees,” the department said Feb. 4..

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry had wanted to double the per-acre fee to grow hemp from $50 to $100 to pay for the rising cost of administering the program, which requires an in-person inspection of each grow site and state review of independent potency test results.

Maine had also wanted to change how it defines hemp, and how it differentiates it from marijuana, to echo stricter federal guidelines on how much THC is allowed by using a federal formula that reduces the small amount of psychoactive element that has been allowed in Maine hemp since 2014.

Using the proposed potency formula, about 27 percent of farmers who grew hemp in Maine last summer would have had too much total THC. Under new federal rules, a so-called “hot crop” must be destroyed, but state regulators assured farmers they’d be able to work out a less costly alternative.

At a January hearing on the proposed rules, however, farmers said they could not tolerate such a huge risk.

The result is that Maine hemp farmers will get a reprieve for the 2020 farming season, but come Oct. 31, new federal guidelines with their strict “total THC” definition that delineates the difference between hemp and marijuana are scheduled to go into effect.

The national farming lobby has been pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to back off its more conservative definition of hemp, and sought to adopt either a higher total THC limit, allow farmers to “remediate” hot crops or to only consider the active THC present in a raw plant, as Maine does.

During a hemp roundtable in Whitefield earlier this year, a USDA official told Maine farmers that the federal agency had heard their complaints about the federal THC calculation, and told them they were not alone, but said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was standing firm on the point.

The uncertainty was making it hard on Maine farmers to buy seeds. Many wanted to stay with the same strains they know how to grow with relative assurance they would test under the old THC threshold but still contain high amounts of CBD, which makes them valuable in the wellness market.

Waiting too long to settle the THC level would have put Maine farmers at a disadvantage if they have to switch to new strains that test below federal levels. Such seeds will be in high demand, raising the operating costs and shrinking profit margins. Now they have until 2021 to line up such purchases.

Three years ago, Maine was growing less than a quarter acre of hemp. As demand for CBD products took off, however, the program has expanded rapidly. The state licensed 2,700 acres of production in 2019. Almost all of that is destined for use as CBD in the wellness market.

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