The Colorado Department of Agriculture has not only created the first hemp-seed certification program in the country, but it just certified its first three seed varieties. Passing state-regulated THC and observation trials, these industrial hemp seeds are now eligible to be grown by the Colorado Seed Growers Association for production as a "CDA Approved Certified Seed."
"This moves hemp toward mainstream agriculture and the same practices of other crops," says Duane Sinning, assistant director of the CDA's division of plant industry.
Most crops have national variety review boards and standards, but industrial hemp isn't quite there yet. So in early 2016, the CDA, CGSU and Colorado State University teamed up to develop the hemp seed certification program.
But it hasn't come without challenges: "You deal with a lot of gray area and try to interpret intent," Sinning explains. "But in terms of seed certification, [dealing with regulation] is probably the easiest part of the program. You're adopting practices you use in other agricultural crops and need the industry to understand how important that is."
Schiavi Seeds, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, submitted and received CDA certification for three hemp varieties: Eletta Campana, an Italian variety designed for high fiber and biomass production; Fibranova, a variation great for fiber production; and Helena, a Serbian seed with high fiber and seed production.
The three Schiavi seeds passed all tests necessary for CDA seed approval, making those the first ones to be approved by the state. New West Genetics, a Fort Collins-based company, also submitted its high-yield grain hemp variety, Rely, but only enough to test for THC content. It will need to resubmit the seed for more testing to complete certification, but it still qualifies as the first hemp seed bred in the United States to pass a department of agriculture (DOA) hemp trial in any state.
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New West Genetics, which has been breeding industrial hemp for various markets and large-scale harvesting since 2014, plans to file Rely for official seed certification through the Association of Official Seed Certification Agencies (AOSCA) next summer and take the seed to trial in both Kentucky and California in the near future.
Schiavi Seeds owner Andrea Schiavi says he will also submit seeds to state DOAs for trial — two varieties in Kentucky and three varieties in Tennessee — since regulation requires farmers to grow seeds that are produced in their own state.
CSU, the state's agricultural seed-certifying agent, works in accordance with AOSCA. The agency provides global "quality assurance" and sets standards for plant characteristics, germination and stable genetics.
"If you have straight rules and regulations and you follow them, everything is smooth and clear," Schiavi says. "Because the AOSCA and CDA work in conjunction to certify, it works. But there's a problem when you don't have regulation or when everything is wide open. As a breeder, you want rules and regulation."
Seeds must pass three phases to become fully certified. First, the breeder must prove the seed is its own variety and provide material to ensure protection of intellectual property. Second, the seed must be grown by the program in broad geographic and climatic conditions and tested for THC limits. And third, the seed must be produced by the CSGA through CSU to ensure that it is true to type, meets germination and disease standards, and doesn't contain off-types.
Breeders send the CDA approximately five pounds of seed per trial, which are then planted and tested in five different sites around the state — areas in the northeast, southeast, Front Range, San Luis Valley and Western Slope regions that vary in day and night temperatures, altitude, length of growing season and soil type. At the same time, hemp is tested for its THC content. According to Colorado law, industrial hemp must contain at or below 0.3 percent THC content on a dry-weight basis; going above that takes the plant into marijuana territory.
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"Seed certification is pretty well handled by the Department of Agriculture and universities," explains Wendy Mosher, CEO of New West Genetics. "Both entities are protected by the 2014 farm bill, and it's fairly easy to enter trials. What is less easy and clear is the regulation around commercializing our product."
Once seeds are certified, those who own the rights to the seed and its genetics have full rein to distribute and sell as they see fit. Alternately, the state could supply higher-education institutes with certified seeds for research and development. New West Genetics says it plans to contract-grow all of its certified products for the first three to four years.
New West Genetics currently has access to nearly 10,000 acres but is rapidly expanding its impact and reach by contracting with an additional one to two farmers each year. According to Mosher, it's the only company in the states to use whole genome sequencing to inform marker-based selection for industrial hemp and the only one adapting cannabis for large-scale harvest for the extraction market.
"We want to create varieties that are as close to perfection as we can make them — and that is a challenge," Mosher says. "For two and a half years, we threw out 90 percent of what we grew because it wasn't good enough. If you're going to be a breeder, you have to be ready to only select the best and forward that through your breeding program."