Ohio hemp farmers fret over what they see as

Patrick Cooley
 
| The Columbus Dispatch

April Curatti invested thousands of dollars into a plot of hemp at her Marysville farm only to be told she couldn’t sell the crop after a test showed its THC levels were too high.

“We know all the risks involved,” Curatti said, but she still described the experience as devastating.

Her story isn’t uncommon as Ohio’s first hemp crops approach maturity. Under state and federal law, hemp must contain less than .3% of THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana. Otherwise, the crops must be destroyed. 

As of Oct. 13, the Ohio Department of Agriculture had tested 284 hemp samples, 20 of which came back “hot,” meaning they surpassed .3% THC level. Six samples were retested at the request of the farmer, and three of them tested under .3% the second time around.

When Ohio legalized hemp last year, the legislature set the .3% limit to conform to federal law set in the 2014 and 2018 federal farm bills. 

Hemp is grown for its fiber or edible seeds and is used to make a variety of commercial and industrial products, such as rope, textiles, food, clothing, shoes, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel.

Hemp and marijuana both come from cannabis, and federal and state lawmakers needed to differentiate the two, but the dividing line is not as cut and dry as a simple THC limit, experts say.

“That .3% is an arbitrary figure,” said Rick Novak, director of seed programs for Colorado State University’s College of Agriculture.

Hemp farmers cite the THC limit as one of the most challenging aspects of hemp cultivation. Climate and weather conditions can cause THC to spike.

In the case of a “hot” sample, farmers can ask the Ohio Department of Agriculture to test a different plant from their plot if they feel the first is not representative of their crop, David Miran, executive director of the agency’s hemp program, said in a statement.

“If a sample tests hot, the lab will always rerun the sample to ensure there wasn’t an error in the testing procedure,” he said.

Hemp develops more THC as it matures, but the level of other lucrative properties, such as the extract cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD), also increase as time goes on. Some farmers worry they will harvest their hemp crop too early for fear of surpassing the THC limit.

“It would be a shame to have to harvest a really strong CBD plant early and it doesn’t reach its potential just because you’re worried about the THC,” said Mary Flynn, a Granville farmer growing a plot of hemp in a greenhouse.

Curatti said she didn’t go into the hemp business just to make money. She pointed out that CBD is a key ingredient in a drug prescribed for childhood epilepsy.

In addition, experts note the CBD oil in hemp is used medically by some people to treat inflammation, depression, anxiety and other conditions.

“I would like to focus it more on a crop that can help people,” Curatti said.

But the hot sample taken from her first hemp crop still weighs on her. By her count, she put at least $10,000 into her hemp plot. If a retest reveals another hot sample, that money is gone, Curatti said.

A 2019 Colorado State University study found that staying under the THC limit is largely a matter of genetics. That means finding the right seeds, Novak said.

“Farmers looking to buy seeds need to do their homework and talk to other farmers before making a decision,” he said. “If you’ve done your research, I think that you will be successful in finding seeds that are going to be reliable for you to work with.”

Curatti said she bought seeds from a reputable seller, but environmental factors impacted the THC levels. Her farm, for example, suffered severe thunderstorms and high winds in September.

“Stressors can cause THC to spike,” Curatti said. “After (the thunderstorms), we had a period of drought. And we think the combination of those things together is what made our particular crop test high. Other growers have grown the same strain and passed in flying colors.”

Industrial hemp seeds are largely bred to grow in climates of Europe or Canada  — where hemp has been legal for far longer — and not Ohio, said John McKay, a professor of plant genetics at Colorado State, who was involved in the university study.

It’s difficult to predict how THC levels will change because research on hemp is sparse, Novak said.

“It’s just not really predictable,” he said. “More studying is going to be needed before we have a full understanding of what we’re dealing with.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, called for the changes, inserting a hemp provision into the 2014 bill legalizing hemp production that cemented the .3% THC limit. A McConnell representative did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who sits on the agriculture committee, is willing to hear hemp farmers’ concerns, according to a statement from his office.

“If hemp farmers are experiencing trouble with their crop, he believes we should listen to them and look at ways we can better help our Ohio producers,” said the statement.

The .3% limit comes from a 1976 study that mapped different strains of hemp and found one of them remained below .3%, said James DeDecker, director of Michigan State University’s Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center.

“It created a precedent that I don’t think (the study’s author) intended,” DeDecker said.

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley

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