WASHINGTON – Dozens of farmers in Western New York and hundreds across the state are planting hemp without knowing for sure how much – if any – of it they will be able to sell.
And to hear Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer tell it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ought to do more to make sure farmers can find buyers for a currently trendy, but financially risky, crop that's popping up on more and more New York farms.
To that end, Schumer Wednesday wrote to the acting head of the FDA, asking him to speed up the guidelines it's drawing up for the medicinal use of a key hemp derivative.
"The lack of regulatory clarity is creating a real fog for farmers, producers and manufacturers," Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters on a conference call.
Schumer's letter to Norman Sharpless, FDA acting director, points to a hard fact about the hemp boom sweeping New York's farm country. While federal and state actions have prompted 22 Erie County farmers to join about 500 statewide in growing hemp, there's no certain, well-defined market for all that freshly grown green stuff.
"I get calls every day from farmers who want to sell their hemp," said Mike Barnhart, the owner of Plant Science Laboratories, a Buffalo hemp processor. "And I'm going to tell you, 80% of the crop probably is going to go unsold this year."
Asked about Barnhart's comment, Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said: "Yes, that is a big concern. It is one thing to grow it, but farms also need to the ability to sell it."
Increasing numbers of farmers in New York have rushed to grow hemp this year for two reasons.
First, Schumer and other senators pushed for language in a farm bill passed last year that made it much easier for farmers to legally grow hemp. Federal law previously limited hemp production, largely because of the product's association with its biological cousin, marijuana.
Hemp contains little measurable tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its mind- and mood-altering properties. But, hemp contains cannabidiol or CBD – which is believed to have some of the same medicinal qualities as marijuana, without the kick.
That being the case, “CBD is brimming with potential to be a billion dollar industry across New York State, bringing along countless jobs and truly meaningful economic development with it," Schumer said. "But before that can happen, farmers, growers, producers, consumers and vendors need to know exactly what the rules of the road are, and right now they’ve got no idea.”
Ammerman agreed that new rules from the FDA, spelling out how much CBD can be safely included in products, would be a boon to farmers.
"That will help set and establish the market for the product," he said.
Even without an established market for CBD products, farmers in New York have flocked to a state pilot project aimed at creating a hemp industry in the state. And while hemp can also be used in clothing and other products, it's CBD that's prompted both state officials and farmers to envision hemp as the key to revitalizing the state's farms.
Some 41 farms in the eight counties of Western New York now take part in the state pilot program, including the 22 in Erie County.
The State Legislature passed a measure earlier this year that could help those farmers, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not yet signed it. That bill expands state licensing for hemp farmers and processors, while requiring state officials to develop labeling and sales requirements for CBD products sold within the state.
Thinking that CBD products will be hugely popular one day, plenty of farmers are planting hemp even though they can't really sell it now, said Tony Weiss, of Eden, a farmer who works with Barnhart's company.
"There's so many people that want to raise 20 plants," Weiss said. "A lot of people want to raise 50 plants. A lot of people want to get into it even more."