Marijuana might win Colorado points, but it’s hemp that will make the state a real winner in this game. As the country’s leader in acreage devoted to hemp farming over the past two years, Colorado has a real head start on the growing industry, and it’s Kate Greenberg’s job to keep us in the lead.
The new director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture is responsible for many things, including overseeing the state’s industrial hemp program, which churns out the plants responsible for all of those CBD products we love so much. But keeping things on course has it challenges, such as looming federal regulations and more domestic competition thanks to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp farming at the federal level.
To learn more about the future of hemp in Colorado, we chatted with Greenberg about her goals for the plant.
Westword: How much did you know about hemp before taking the new job?
Kate Greenberg: I knew very little. I am, like a lot of us in the world of agriculture, on the learning curve. In the policy universe, I had interfaced with hemp through the Farm Bill. In my last life, with the National Young Farmers Coalition, we were working on ag policy though the Farm Bill, and definitely crossed paths with what was going on with hemp. So I was tracking it through the end of 2018, but in terms of what has taken off since the Farm Bill was signed, I think it’s a whole new universe for everyone. So we’re getting up to speed and ahead of the curve as fast as possible as we build a new industry.
How educated are Colorado farmers about science and state laws surrounding hemp?
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In my mind, that’s a bit of a complex question. You’ve got a lot of producers who are growing hemp and probably growing other things. But their livelihood is farming, and they make money off the land. Those farmers get how it works, how hemp works, how hemp is grown and the state regulations they need to follow.
I think what we’re seeing now is a lot folks who haven’t farmed before, who haven’t made a living off farming, coming into this boom and trying their hands at it. There’s so much excitement and momentum around it, I think a lot of folks are coming in without farming skills. So you get all ends of the spectrum in terms of farming expertise, both on how to grow the plant and how to navigate state and federal rules.
Growers have regulatory uncertainty because it’s a whole new industry, and one thing we’re hearing is that in order to grow the industry to the potential we and our governor would like to see it grow to, it would require more regulatory certainty. In that regard, I think it’s less about educating — even though we still care about educating — than creating that certainty about what they can do within that regulatory framework.
That’s an interesting observation about the inexperienced trying their hands at farming hemp because of how popular it is. Have you seen this boom mentality with any other crops?
I’ve seen it in various ways. I think hemp is unique, because folks are getting into it because they think they can make money. Most farmers don’t get into farming because they see dollar signs everywhere — this is not the business to get into if you think you’re going to get rich. The people I’ve seen and worked with for many years who have gotten into farming years ago got into because they love the land, they love to grow food, they love the place they live, and they love working for themselves. Those are the reasons most people get into ag.
This is a bit of a new territory, because there are dollar signs all over the hemp industry, so you get folks who aren’t in it necessarily for the passion of farming, but for the opportunity to make money.
How does Colorado’s hemp industry compare to that of other states around the country?
Basically, we kick butt. We had one of the first hemp programs in the country, and there’s still only a few across the country. Folks are racing post-2018 Farm Bill to set something up, but we are five years ahead of the curve, having our own hemp program. We’ve got experience with certified hemp seeds, managing registrations and inspections, working with growers and universities, and dealing with the federal government before it was legal.
We’ve got pretty incredible experience in Colorado; our state is set up for it, and our governor is all about hemp. It’s a fantastic time to be doing this work in Colorado, so I think by all accounts, we are ahead of the game. Our intent is to stay there.
I’m glad you brought up certified seeds. How important is a state-certified seed for hemp farmers, whose plants must stay below 0.3 percent THC?
That gets us into “hot hemp” territory, right? The whole premise of this hemp industry is that we’re producing end products that have 0.3 percent THC or less. In order to get there, you need some certainty about the crops that you’re growing. If farmers were just putting in whichever seeds into the ground and grew plants that were above that 0.3 level, there’s no way to have certainty about your crop. Having a certified seed just gives you much greater certainty in that what you plant is something that you’ll actually be able to harvest.
Other aspects of ag have similar things: When you put a carrot seed in the ground, you want to know that you’re getting a sweet carrot in the end. That’s not dissimilar from hemp.
How big of a problem is hot hemp (with THC levels over 0.3 percent) in Colorado?
That’s hard to say. It’s an issue we’re aware of, and one that growers certainly have encountered. It’s something we’re working to solve through our CHAMP [Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan] initiative, which essentially came out of having conversations like this across state agencies, with industries, institutions of higher education and other entities. We ask questions about hot hemp and other options for growers. Before CHAMP, we didn’t have an avenue to figure these things out, so we took leadership in creating a structure that will allow regulatory agencies, industries, Native tribes, learning institutions and farmers to sit around a table and actually develop answers. There are still so many questions about the X, Y and Z of hemp — like interstate transport [and] how the Department of Public Safety can determine what is hemp and what is not. All of those questions finally have a table to sit at.
States like Idaho and South Dakota have banned hemp farming despite federal legalization, citing worries over bad actors who would grow THC-rich marijuana instead of hemp. How big of a concern are bad actors for the CDA, and how do you address it?
That’s why we partnered with the Department of Public Safety. With the CHAMP plan, we’ve coordinated with about ten other state agencies across Colorado, like DPS and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade — so we have advancement and management. DPS is on board to dig into the unlawful questions, because that’s outside of our jurisdiction. So that’s why we work closely with law enforcement to make sure they have the tools they need to do their jobs well.
Hot hemp is an issue in Colorado. We’re not exempt from what other states are facing in terms of black market and illegal grows, but that’s something we lean on our law enforcement partners to address while providing as much help as we can.
CDA director Kate Greenberg
Courtesy of the Department of Agriculture
With more states getting ready to allow hemp and CBD companies within their borders, how does Colorado maintain the leadership it’s had for the past five years?
I think the CHAMP initiative is a big way toward that. It’s a huge, coordinated effort that includes anyone who has a stake in the game across Colorado, but it’s also going to be open-sourced. We’ve been talking to other states that don’t have programs, and are offering our expertise. We don’t see this as something we need to hold on to and keep away from everyone. We’ve got a national and international industry with this now, and we can’t keep it it within closed borders in Colorado. This is going to have to include interstate commerce, and we really see our creativity and desire to bring in thought leaders as ways to continue our leadership.
One way to establish our leadership is getting our state plan into the USDA. We’re in close communication with the USDA to make sure they see us as a partner in this, and that we are a resource. Submitting our state plan is big here, just to make sure our state’s hemp program is still a leader. Another one is the larger CHAMP report, which will show what it takes to grow our hemp industry beyond the Farm Bill. This is a big-vision process. We just closed our stakeholder applications for eight CHAMP working groups, and I think we got about 160 applications.
Local governments are also big partners for us. Towns and counties have a lot of questions about what they can do at the local level. That collaborative nature, creativity, big-thinking and inclusiveness, I think that’s what will set up Colorado to maintain leadership in this realm.
How will the USDA’s new oversight affect hemp farming in Colorado?
There are very specific bullet points that the Farm Bill lays out for states that want to run their own hemp programs. If a state doesn’t want to run its own program, the USDA will do it for you, but that’s not what we’re going to do in Colorado. We’re going to maintain our leadership and direction over hemp. So we just need to hit those bullet points — and we’ve already hit a lot of them — about where we’ve been and where we want to go.
The USDA is doing its own rulemaking around this, as well, so we want to make sure that whatever comes out of Washington, D.C., aligns with what we’ve got going on here in Colorado and enables us to advance our hemp industry as far as possible.
Where does CBD fall into all of this? Does the CDA have any say over how CBD products are regulated?
We don’t regulate or oversee anything having to do with processing, sales or products with CBD. Our jurisdiction pretty much ends with the plant harvest, and then we do THC testing on the hemp. Beyond that, it goes to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That’s another CHAMP partner that helps us not just look at hemp cultivation, but at all end uses of the plant.
How does Colorado’s climate stack up against other parts of the country for hemp growing?
Man, from what I can tell, this place is great for it. We’ve got a lot of indoor grows, as well, but we’ve also got a lot of hail. Everyone’s got their natural disaster of choice, though. But, yeah, our climate and soil are great.
One thing I’d like to also mention is sustainability. It’s a big value for our department, and we’re really thinking about how hemp can help drive sustainability, and really reach those markets that care about sustainability.
Looking at water use — because we’re an arid state — there’s a lot of excitement around hemp for not necessarily requiring a lot of water. I think we need to make sure as we’re building out our industry that we’re taking care of our water and soil, those farming aspects, to make sure we’re still giving back.