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New York makes bid to grow more hemp - for industrial purposes

ALBANY – Hemp  once flourished in New York’s farm fields before being outlawed by the federal government in 1970.

Now the state is taking steps to increase the crop.

“We want to be the nation’s leader in hemp production,’’ Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday shortly before signing legislation intended to boost the commercialization of industrial hemp, which is used in some 25,000 products from cosmetics and animal feed to clothing and biofuels.

The state is also pumping $10 million into research for the now-fledgling industry, State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball said, after the federal government in 2014 relaxed rules governing the growing of the crop. Industrial hemp, unlike its marijuana cousin, contains no or minimal levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that gets users high.

The legislation Cuomo signed Wednesday creates a state-run, hemp seed certification program and classifies industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity. Such a classification, Ball said in an interview,  can help farmers get bank loans to  grow a crop.

“It’s a real crop,’’ Ball said.

Given New York’s weather patterns and how quickly hemp is compared with other crops, Ball said industrial hemp can be an important crop for farmers looking to diversify their operations. In rainy summers such as 2017, farmers would be able to plant industrial hemp seeds late in July and have a crop later this summer.

Part of the additional state funding this year is going to a research program that involves planting hemp seeds on 2,000 acres from Erie County to Long Island. That is up from last year, when the crop was limited to a few greenhouses and about 30 acres of Mohawk Valley farmland.

The Hemp Industries Association, a trade group, estimates retail hemp product sales are about $600 million in the United States, with one-quarter of those sales coming from personal care products containing hemp ingredients. Farmers now interested in growing hemp must participate in a state-run research program through Cornell University, SUNY Morrisville or the state agriculture department. Farmers are banned by federal law from purchasing seeds on the open market and growing the crop on their own outside of the state-administered effort.

Ball said about $750 million of industrial hemp is imported into the United States, with much of it coming from Canada.

Sen. Thomas O'Mara, a Chemung County Republican who was the Senate sponsor of the new hemp law, said the measure needed to get past initial opposition in some quarters about marijuana.

"We had to get the 1960 mentality of reefer madness out of our minds to move this forward,'' he said.

"It's a great industrial crop,'' O'Mara added.

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