House, Senate advance hemp growing bills

Jack Money The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (TNS) — Interest in farming industrial hemp in Oklahoma continues to blossom.

On Monday, two bills seeking to authorize Oklahoma’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to move forward with plans to formulate an expanded hemp growing and harvesting program advanced.

The Senate Agriculture Committee gave a unanimous thumbs-up Monday morning to House Bill 2628, authored by State Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.

Later the same day, the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee also unanimously recommended passage of Senate Bill 868, authored by State Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle.

If either were made law, each would authorize the state agency to update rules related to the crop to allow its cultivation on a wider scale, now that Congress has legalized the growing and harvesting of hemp as part of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018.

At the same time, interest continues to sprout among farmers contemplating trying the crop.

Kenny M. Naylor, the agency’s food safety and consumer protection services director, said Monday his office estimates about three times as many acres of industrial hemp (about 1,300 acres) will be planted this year compared to 2018 in Oklahoma under the state’s previously authorized pilot program.

Naylor’s office issues licenses related to the pilot program and administers a certified seed program for industrial hemp, a form of cannabis with lower THC levels than marijuana.

The office does not yet, however, have jurisdiction over the processing, sale or distribution of industrial hemp.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 removed industrial hemp from the Schedule 1 category of the Controlled Substances Act, authorized crop insurance programs for industrial hemp growers and allowed for hemp clones and seedlings to cross state lines. President Trump signed the bill into law in early January.

For now, however, it remains illegal in Oklahoma to grow the crop outside of the existing pilot program previously authorized by Oklahoma’s Legislature.

Current state law authorizes Oklahoma universities and colleges with plant science curricula to apply for an annual license from the state agriculture department to grow industrial hemp for research. Eight schools received licenses.

The law also authorizes independent producers to obtain licenses through participating schools to take part in the pilot.

Officials have said planting season for industrial hemp that will be harvested for seed or for fiber started in March and runs through May, like the planting season for corn.

On Monday, Naylor said the agency this spring has conducted numerous informational sessions for interested potential growers at several universities that hold licenses under the pilot program and added that several other information sessions have been held at agriculture extension offices across the state.

“There is a lot of people who are interested in it, and we are getting tons of calls,” he said.

“I think as growers continue to learn more about it, more will participate.”

Echols agreed interest is peaked, noting he gets calls from farmers weekly with questions about expanding the program beyond its pilot status.

“There is absolutely more money in hemp than I think there is in marijuana because there are so many uses for it,” Echols said. “And now it is federally legal, there’s no reason Oklahoma farmers shouldn’t take advantage.

“There is a race right now among states as to who can come out the industry leader, and I would like to see Oklahoma take that spot.”