Late in March, Colorado released its long-awaited hemp progress report, part of a twenty-month project geared at positioning the state as a hemp-industry leader.
The Colorado Hemp Advancement & Management Plan (CHAMP) Initiative was launched in 2019 by the state Department of Agriculture at the behest of Governor Jared Polis, after the Farm Bill federally legalized industrial hemp farming in late 2018. According to the CDA, Colorado will be "using the CHAMP Initiative as a blueprint," with calls to implement programs such as new laboratory testing rules, easier access to financial resources, and further research into more reliable hemp seeds and genetics.
The CHAMP report will also be part of Colorado's ongoing talks with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is still waiting on the state to submit its plan for statewide hemp regulations.
Released about a year later than promised, the CHAMP report was delayed primarily because of COVID-19, according to Hollis Glenn, one of six leaders of the CHAMP program and the director of the CDA's Division of Inspection and Consumer Services.
"Priorities within the CDA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the other agency with a predominant role in [CHAMP], had to focus on staff and oversee a number of COVID-response programs," Glenn says. "Quite frankly, it had to take a back burner to that. And I think my timing was a little too ambitious."
Since 2019, the USDA has released several versions of interim rules for federal hemp policy, with the final set issued in January. Colorado will be allowed to operate under those federal rules through the 2021 farming season, but the CDA must turn in the state's revised hemp plan by October. The department's first draft was denied in 2020; according to Glenn, that denial was cause for extra meetings and further delayed the CHAMP report, which was also supposed to advise the CDA on the USDA's stance on hemp.
"CHAMP is two pieces," he explains, "and the larger aspirations and recommendations were going to go beyond the Farm Bill and submitting the state plan to the USDA."
The report highlighted economic stability, genetic breeding, federal cooperation, cross-pollination with marijuana and THC remediation as issues to monitor for Colorado's hemp industry going forward.
Here's more from the report:
Rebounding after a tough 2020
Colorado marijuana sales hit record numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the hemp industry lost ground during the same span. According to the CHAMP report, the number of registered hemp farmers in Colorado declined over 40 percent from the end of 2019 to July 2020.
A separate market report shows that 48 percent of hemp farmers across the country had leftover inventory, with an average of about 24,795 pounds of excess hemp biomass per farm.
The CHAMP report says that Colorado "is poised to benefit" from a maturing hemp market post-COVID, but only if the state "supports a supply chain that relies upon industrial hemp for use in textiles, polymers, and construction inputs" for sustainable building and fabric materials by loosening regulations and attracting more hemp-processing companies to the state.
Play nice with the feds
The CDA, Polis, Colorado hemp farmers and businesses, trade organizations and even the Colorado Legislature have been poking the USDA and DEA with recommendations and criticism regarding overburdensome regulations since 2018. While the CHAMP report suggests that state leaders remain vigilant in efforts to ease federal rules surrounding hemp testing, THC remediation and finance and insurance access for hemp farmers, it also argues that playing nice could get Colorado further.
"While federal compatibility is important to establish national standards, Colorado should continue to advocate for appropriate and reasonable federal regulations that allow for advancement of the industry, while at the same time, maintaining a level of public safety," the report reads.
Cross pollination with marijuana
Marijuana and hemp are essentially of the same plant, and both can be grown outside. However, industrial hemp is pollinated and carries seeds, while marijuana and CBD-hemp growers do their best to keep their plants free of seeds and male plants so that the buds reach their peak potency and flavor. If the two varieties are grown near each other, pollination begins, and those high-THC and CBD buds are wasted.
The CHAMP report recommends that the CDA begin collecting data on the location, variety and intended use of hemp farms and their crops, as well as conduct future research into "geography, climate, pollen viability, presence of hemp genetic research facilities, and other factors to develop cross-pollination risk standards."
Seeds and genetics
With such a hard limit on THC, genetics mean everything in the hemp industry. According to the CHAMP report, Colorado hemp farmers have been experiencing shortages in reliable hemp seeds and prices, and the state should increase research into more stable hemp genetics by expanding the state's current hemp-seed certification program and creating a new hemp breeding program to certify plant clones; the report also encourages more private entities and universities in Colorado to develop new hemp varieties.
Sampling and testing
Colorado hemp farmers want less restrictive sampling and testing rules than the USDA is proposing, and have criticized the DEA's involvement in THC potency testing overall. Although the USDA did eventually raise the post-harvest storage period between lab testing from fifteen days to thirty, the CHAMP report wants to see third-party sampling and lab certification to prevent a logjam at the handful of businesses that are federally approved in Colorado.
Although not under as intense scrutiny as marijuana's seed-to-sale tracking system, industrial hemp is loosely monitored by the CDA. The CHAMP report recommends increasing that tracking system to create a chain "beginning at harvest and continuing to the final end-product, including documentation for all transactions and transport." The argument is that further tracking would enable more interstate hemp commerce, weed out bad actors and please federal regulators — but, as with GPS tracking, not all farmers are on board with the idea.
Hemp Center of Excellence
Colorado needs to increase research and development around hemp to realize several of the goals outlined in the CHAMP report, and the state Hemp Center of Excellence is designated as the institute to lead the charge. Created by a 2018 bill intended to help direct federally approved research and outreach in the state's hemp industry, the Hemp Center of Excellence is likely to play a part in breeding, seed, cross-pollination and THC-remediation research, as well as several other important elements to hemp-industry growth.
"The mission of the Center of Excellence will be to serve as a statewide liaison for the Colorado hemp
industry by fostering collaboration, resource-sharing, and communication among its regulatory, academic, and industry partners in the research development efforts. In addition, stakeholders suggested the Center will also serve as an 'Educational Hub' that will provide technical assistance and educational resources for hemp growers," the CHAMP report reads. "The Center should also share updates on the industry and findings from its research activities through a publicly accessible website that can provide links to verifiable resources and regulatory information."
Some members of Colorado's hemp community have criticized Polis's administration and the CDA for how it handled a contract bid for the creation of the Hemp Center. The controversy stemmed from a CDA selection committee ultimately choosing a marijuana industry group known more for policy work regarding state-legal marijuana than industrial hemp. The CDA is moving forward, however, and is currently setting up a committee to help steer the first five years of the Hemp Center as it nears construction.
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