Maine’s struggling hemp farmers would get a break under a bill being introduced Tuesday by Rep. Chellie Pingree that would relax restrictions on who is eligible to grow the crop, what testing labs they can use and the strict rules governing the field potency of their crops.

The Hemp Advancement Act of 2022 would raise the amount of THC allowed in hemp plants and hemp extract during the farming and manufacturing process while making sure that all final hemp products sold to consumers are not intoxicating.

“It’s just more workable,” Pingree said Tuesday. “Legalizing hemp to grow in this country has taken a really long time because of this antiquated idea that it was like growing marijuana. … It’s frustrating. We have a ways to go, but I don’t think we can give up on the potential for hemp.”

Hemp was supposed to be the next big thing for Maine farmers, an easy-to-grow cash crop capable of fetching as much as $250,000 an acre when sold for CBD, or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis now featured in almost every prominent wellness product line.

But after three years of rapid expansion, the state industry collapsed, the victim of a flooded national market and resulting price drop, unfavorable federal rules, and a gold-rush mentality. Some farmers are sitting on barns full of product they can’t sell and millions of dollars in debt.

In 2015, the first year of the program, two Maine farmers grew a quarter acre of hemp between them. Four years later, the program peaked: 181 Maine farmers planted 2,081 acres of hemp. But last year, the state licensed 49 farmers, who only planted 67 acres.


“We’d love to help this crop take off and help our farmers diversify, but it hasn’t worked out like that,” said state horticulturalist Gary Fish at the state Department of Agriculture. “A lot of our big guys, the investors, they’ve left the market. We’ve seen some of our tiny growers do well.”

The state is worried it won’t collect enough license fees, which average about $650 per grower, to subsidize the $135,000 a year it costs to run Maine’s hemp program, which includes personnel and extensive sampling and testing costs.

The state now is encouraging farmers to grow hemp for the grain market, a less risky venture.


Pingree’s bill tackles the more “unworkable” parts of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp, she said. In addition to relaxed thresholds for THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, it allows hemp testing at labs that aren’t registered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and people with old felony drug convictions to get a license.

Under current federal hemp rules, there are only two labs in New England – one in Vermont and one in New Hampshire – that are qualified under the Farm Bill to conduct the required potency testing. Expanding the choice of certified labs would likely reduce costs and waiting times.

But it is the change in allowable THC that is likely to provide Maine hemp farmers the most flexibility and relief, said Geoff Nosach of Panorama Farms in Cornville.

Under federal law, hemp farmers live in fear that at the end of a growing season their crop might test above the low THC levels mandated in the 2018 Farm Bill, said Nosach, who in 2019 began growing a small crop of organic hemp that he sells into the wholesale CBD market. A hemp plant that tests “hot” would not intoxicate a consumer, he said – it simply yields more valuable CBD extract.

“The federal rule cuts into my harvest, and into my profit,” Nosach said. “It’s like an apple tree. Force me to harvest that apple tree before the end of the growing season, before it’s just right, and I’ll end up with fewer apples. The apples will taste the same, but there won’t be as many of them to sell.”

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