News

Iowa's hemp program held up over 'hot crop' prosecution

State negotiating with USDA, waiting for licensure software

Hemp plant. (Stock photo)
Hemp plant. (Stock photo)
/

Iowa is racing to get its industrial hemp program approved by the federal government, which wants stricter rules for when growers would be turned over to police for having plants with too much tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

But with less than two months until farmers want to get seeds in the ground, the state’s first-ever hemp growing season is in jeopardy.

“There’s under two weeks for the state to have a plan approved and for people to get their license to quality for federal crop insurance,” said Ethan Vorhes, a Nashua farmer and cattle producer who wants to grow hemp this year. “It’s not going to happen. They’ve really set back the industry there and exposed the farmers to more risk.”

Last May, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Senate File 599, which allowed the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to develop a state plan for licensed farmers to grow up to 40 acres of industrial hemp to make products, including textiles, oils, paper and rope.

The state Agriculture Department has submitted the state’s plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which must sign off for Iowa’s program to move forward.

The agencies now are negotiating the terms of a “negligent violation,” which is when a farmer whose crop tests too high for THC may be turned over to law enforcement for possible criminal prosecution, said Robin Pruisner, state entomologist and agriculture security coordinator.

Plants with more than 0.3 percent THC — the compound that creates the “high” feeling — are considered marijuana, and it’s illegal to grow pot in Iowa.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Iowa law says hemp crops that test greater than 0.3 percent but not more than 2 percent would have to be destroyed, but the grower would not be subject to a negligent violation. The USDA says that safe window should be smaller, from 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent, Pruisner said.

“Ultimately, they’ve narrowed that safety band, while at the same time having states use a testing level that creates a higher level of THC,” she said of the USDA.

A license to legally grow hemp in Iowa costs up to $1,150 a year to get started, and at least $1,000 to inspect and test pre-harvest crops to determine THC levels.

Another holdup to launching Iowa’s program is the licensing software isn’t done yet, Pruisner said. Once the program is approved and software complete, the Agriculture Department must send applicants’ fingerprints to the FBI for criminal background checks.

“I’m not entirely sure how long it will take to get that information back,” Pruisner said. “It’s always rough the first year, starting from scratch.”

Pruisner said she has no idea whether the hundreds of potential growers who have called her for information about industrial hemp will take the leap.

Growing a “hot crop” is among risks to be considered, especially since crops with too much THC that have to be destroyed aren’t covered under federal crop insurance.

Seed genetics — not field conditions — determine THC levels, according to a Cornell University study published in January. So growers must be careful about the types of hemp they grow, which can be challenging in such a new industry.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

While the market for cannabidiol, or CBD, products has gotten a lot of attention, many manufacturers already have a surplus of product, Pruisner said.

“My No. 1 piece of advice is you need to have a contract to sell it before you plant it,” she said. “It’s not the crop to speculate on.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.