The legalization of hemp in Texas on Sept. 1 brought with it dreams of greener pastures, said Josh McGinty, of Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension program.
But hopeful hemp farmers anxiously awaiting their first harvest may be jumping the gun.
“There’s a lot of risk,” McGinty said.
McGinty said hemp farming’s future remains hazy in Texas because regulations have yet to be approved at the national and state levels, and crop research in Texas is on hold as researchers await permits.
These conditions were chronicled Wednesday morning in McGinty’s presentation, the “Current Legal Status and Possible Hemp Production in Texas,” at the 2019 South Texas Farm and Ranch Show.
The conversation about hemp farming in Texas kicked off this summer, when the state signed into law its own hemp legalization bill, HB 1325. The bill followed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp containing no more than 0.3% THC at the federal level and laid the groundwork for state programs to create their own programs.
A top U.S. Department of Agriculture official said on Oct. 17 that the department expects to release an interim final rule on hemp regulations within “the next couple of weeks.”
Since we passed the #FarmBill—which included legislation I fought for to legalize industrial hemp—I’ve been hearing from many #Iowa farmers on my #99CountyTour about their interest in growing hemp to diversify their crops.
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) October 21, 2019
“Before our Department of Ag can do anything, they’re waiting on some rules from the USDA,” McGinty said.
The department previously indicated that it would release the regulations in August, but that timeline has shifted, with officials recently stating that they’d be issued this fall, prior to the 2020 planting season.
“Once that happens,” McGinty said. “Then TDA can take action and start making its own regulations.”
McGinty said the permitting process could begin as early 2020, but there’s no guarantee it will be complete before the planting season begins.
“If they put permit or licensing procedures in place in February, I think east of I-35 may have enough time,” McGinty said.
Growing hemp in Texas is made more complicated by the fact that marijuana hasn’t been legalized. Hemp must contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and farmers will be mandated by law to dispose of crops that go above this level.
McGinty said this requirement makes growing hemp in Texas a risk because of the multiple factors that could affect a plant’s THC concentration.
“There hasn’t ever been any real plant breeders that have worked with hemp in the U.S. and so you may buy a certain variety and find out there’s 10 different sets of genetics in there,” McGinty said. “You need some time for more plant breeders, and more people who know how to produce commercial seed, to help purify those lines and make them uniform so that if you buy this low THC variety, you know it’s actually going to be one THC variety all across the field.”
THC levels in a plant can vary according to management practices and the weather, but McGinty said the main factor is genetics.
The risk in Texas differs from a state such as Colorado, where there’s still a market for plants exceeding 0.3% THC concentration.
“It’s Colorado: if it spikes, all you have to do is keep it in state,” McGinty said. “If it’s Texas, that wouldn’t be the case. You’d have to destroy it.”
McGinty said generating farming recommendations for the state will take more than a year.
“It’s multiple, 2 to 3 years before we can start saying, ‘Ok these are our recommendations for growing hemp: These are the varieties that work well at these latitudes across the coast with irrigation; these are the ones that work well without irrigation,” McGinty said.
Texas’ environment may also cause problems when it comes to pests.
“We’ve got some serious problems with worm species that we’re going to have to deal with,” McGinty cited as one potential problem. “They love hemp and they’re already all over the coast.”
In spite of the financial risk, McGinty said he’s heard of several people across the state who are already preparing to plant hemp in the coming growing season.
“There’s not data to go off of,” McGinty said. “It might work, it might not, but you just figure it out as you go.”
Morgan O’Hanlon is the business and agriculture reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6328, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mcohanlon.