2020 brings new regulations and new concerns for S.C. hemp growers

VIDEO: 2020 brings new regulations and new concerns for S.C. hemp growers

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As the SC Department of Agriculture prepares to accept hundreds of new applications for the 2020 growing season on Feb. 1, there are concerns about how “heavy-handed” regulations from the federal government will impact the state’s crop.

“We were all shocked when we heard it,” Hemp Program Coordinator Vanessa Elsalah said. “We thought that just because it was federally legal to grow hemp now that rules would be a little bit more lax, and that wasn’t the case.”

SCDA officials are concerned about new testing requirements in the USDA’s interim federal rule, and the SCDA has submitted comments to the US Secretary of Agriculture asking that the mandates be reconsidered.

“For example, the federal rule mandates that all hemp fields be sampled by SCDA-designated staff and tested by a DEA-registered laboratory within 15 days prior to harvest, a window SCDA feels is too narrow. Farmers are at the mercy of weather conditions, while laboratories are likely to experience back-ups during harvest season, and SCDA has not been given any funding to administer this testing,” a news release from the SCDA states.

South Carolina’s hemp program was launched in 2018 with just 20 farmers and 20 acres each.

In 2019, the program grew to 114 farmers and 43 hemp processors, and 2020 is expected to be the biggest year yet with permits for an unlimited amount of acreage and unlimited number of farmers.

Elsalah expects 300 to 400 farmers to be permitted for the 2020 growing season with more processors and hemp handlers, too.

“It’s going to be from seed to sell pretty much in the state,” Elsalah said. “We have a lot of smart, innovative farmers, generation after generation of farmers…possibly we could be put on the map for growing South Carolina hemp.”

The crop is already heavily regulated by state mandates, but the new federal rules will put even more restrictions on farmers and the SCDA.

Officials are working on a new state plan to submit to the USDA to ask for exceptions to some of the new regulations.

Because of the increased scrutiny and unanswered questions regarding the new mandates, the SCDA plans to extend current permits through May 1, 2020.

The SCDA will also no longer allow permitted farmers to let responsible parties grow hemp under their license. Anyone growing hemp in South Carolina will have to be a permitted hemp farmer. Current responsible parties who intend to grow hemp next year should make plans to apply for their own permit, or to destroy any hemp in their possession in accordance with state law when the permit under which they are licensed expires.

“We believe that several provisions in the interim final rule lack the flexibility necessary for our farmers to be profitable and for SCDA to be able to implement a successful hemp program,” State Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers wrote in a letter to the US Secretary of Agriculture.

Weathers cited concerns about new sampling and testing requirements, a negligence threshold, and plant sampling.

“If it [the state plan] gets approved or not approved, we still need to let our farmers know what the regulations are going to be, so we just need some type of guidance with that,” Elsalah said.

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