Interest in growing hemp doesn’t appear to be waning in Washington, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Since the beginning of the year, the department has issued 67 licenses to grow hemp. Last year in late May, the department had licensed 35 hemp farmers. The department hasn’t seen anything yet to suggest the state will see a drop in the roughly 6,000 acres planted last year, a spokesman said.
Industrial Hemp Association of Washington director Bonny Jo Peterson said some growers, stung last year by poor sales, are reducing acres or not planting at all. But new growers are coming on board, though their plants might not sell, she said.
“This year I’m not very optimistic about people actually being able to get their crop to market,” she said.
Hemp acreage in the U.S. more than quadrupled in 2019, according to the advocacy group Vote Hemp, as growers sought to supply a perceived demand for cannabidiol, or CBD, which many people say has health benefits.
The USDA doesn’t report on the hemp market, but some industry publications and state agriculture departments report that the supply of hemp grown for CBD exceeded the demand. The Oregon Department of Agriculture reported that the number of licensed hemp growers is down more than 75% compared to this time last year.
Washington was not among the top hemp-producing states last year, but it was the first time more than one grower planted it.
Grays Harbor farmer Jay Gordon, a dairyman, grew about 5 acres of hemp and said that turned out to be about 4 1/2 acres too many. Most of his crop is in storage, he said.
“We sold virtually nothing,” Gordon said. “The market is pretty saturated.”
Gordon said hemp was easy to grow, and there were potential buyers, but deals weren’t completed. “Guys would come out, show interest, ‘Yeah, that’s nice stuff, we’ll get back to you,’ and then nothing.”
CBD remains hampered by its legal status. Although Congress legalized hemp plants and viable seeds, CBD can’t be added to food or marketed as a diet supplement, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA has approved CBD to treat two rare and severe types of epilepsy, but warns that the chemical has adverse side effects. The agency sent three warning letters this past week to businesses that were promoting CBD as a way to ward off COVID-19.
A one-year license to grow hemp in Washington costs $750, but will increase to $1,200 on June 1. Peterson said some growers have obtained licenses, anticipating the fee hike, but haven’t decided whether to go ahead and plant.
She said the rush to plant to meet a demand for CBD last year was “complete perception, based on nothing.”
By next year, however, hemp farmers may have more options as processors emerge to buy hemp for other products, such as building materials, she said.
“Growers who use 2020 to learn will be ahead of the game,” Peterson said.
Gordon said he may grow hemp again this year, though less of it. He said that before he plants, he’ll be looking for buyers who need a modest supply.