Hemp could soon become as ubiquitous as corn, tomatoes or blueberries in the Garden State. And it may one day earn the right to be labeled “Jersey Fresh.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week approved New Jersey’s plans for hemp production. The state was among the first three to receive the USDA’s official federal endorsement. The agency also gave the OK to proposals submitted by Louisiana and Ohio.
Hemp is a close cousin of what most of the world knows as marijuana. Both are forms of cannabis. In some cases the two varieties are indistinguishable without testing.
The major difference between the two varieties is this: Hemp by definition must contain less than 0.3 percent of THC, the intoxicating compound that gives marijuana its kick. Some experimental hemp growers have a hard time keeping THC below that limit.
Where marijuana is grown for its psychoactive effects, industrial hemp is cultivated to be used as paper, textiles, building materials, food, oils, and dietary supplements such as CBD.
Nationwide, farmers last year grew more than 500,000 acres of hemp in 34 states. That’s up from 112,000 acres in 2018, according to the hemp advocacy organization Vote Hemp.
The CBD market alone could be valued at $16 billion by 2025, according to a recent Cowen report. And, analysts predict that hemp could drive a $20 billion industry by 2025.
While about 8,000 acres were licensed in Pennsylvania in 2019 and 4,000 acres cultivated, no hemp was legally grown in the Garden State. With the USDA’s approval, the new crop will need an entirely new supply chain that will include processors, testing labs, and distributors.
“Jersey has some catching up to do with Kentucky, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee,” said Brett Goldman, a former lobbyist who serves as the Philadelphia-based vice president of government and industry for the multi-state hemp grower, GenCanna of Kentucky.
Said Goldman: “Now it’s time for farmers to get farming.”
And under the New Jersey program, everyone’s a farmer.
Anyone in the state who wants to grow hemp will be permitted to do so, said New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture, Douglas H. Fisher.
But every aspiring grower will have to go through a formal application process and be approved by the Department of Agriculture before planting seeds.
There will be no limits on the number of permits issued, Fisher said. Hemp will be treated like any other agricultural crop and may someday be eligible for promotion under the state’s Jersey Fresh program, “though we haven’t quite gotten there yet,” Fisher said.
Application forms will be posted next week on the Department of Agriculture website. Once the applications are submitted, the state will move quickly to grant approvals.
“Some states had pilot programs, experimental programs as in Pennsylvania,” Fisher said. “We wanted to go right to letting anyone who wants to grow it do that, and they can grow it anywhere.”
New Jersey’s hemp legislation was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in August.
Growers won’t be limited in the amount they can cultivate, Fisher said, but they will have to register and know the state regulations.
“The only thing they have to do is register their plots, their fields or their indoors facilities,” Fisher said. “We have to know what they are growing and where. But there’s no limit.”
It will be legal to import hemp seeds from other states.
Goldman, of GenCanna, said it is still undetermined which strains and cultivars will do best in New Jersey.
Growers will be eligible to receive help from experts at the state university.
“Rutgers will be very much involved and has real expertise in this realm,” Fisher said. “They’ve been waiting to help growers find the right seed, maximize the yields and find new uses for their crops.”
Growing hemp may turn out to be the easiest part of the equation, as farmers are finding in other states like Oregon. Once harvested, the crop must still be processed into fiber, food or oil.
And currently there are no hemp processing facilities in New Jersey. Although it is legal to ship hemp across state lines, finding processors is a state priority.