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Home > Articles > Cultivation > Content Piece

Oregon Growers Are Trying to Define a Unit of Hemp

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jun 18, 2019   
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A bushel of wheat, a century of potatoes, and the peck of pickled peppers that Peter Piper picked. Giving agricultural commodities a named universal standard unit of measurement allows for uniformity, which in turn makes trade and farming operations more straightforward. So, how do we talk about hemp?

While hemp is now a legal agricultural commodity in the United States, and has been for many months, a unit of hemp or hemp seed still doesn’t have a recognized name or an agreed-upon quantity. This is a problem for the hemp industry as farmers and investors try to negotiate their way through this new market space.

“If you look at a lot of financial markets, they're all saying, ‘people are investing this, and we have no idea what to divide it by’,” said Jay Noller, the head of Oregon State University's new Global Hemp Innovation Center, to the Associated Press. “We have hemp fiber. What is it? What's the standard length?”

To address this, the Global Hemp Innovation Center, the new US National Review Board for Hemp Varieties, and several seed certification programs nationwide are coming together to standardize US hemp for a global market.

In the fall, the US National Review Board for Hemp Varieties will begin to accept and review applications from hemp growers who want to claim credit for specific genetic varieties of hemp. If the claim is deemed strong enough, the review board will have the power to grant the grower a unique designation which they can use to apply for a plant patent from the US government. Once the patent is granted, no other hemp growers will be allowed to produce that variety of hemp. 

A meeting has also been arranged for early July, hosted in Harbin City, China, that will bring together leaders in the global hemp industry to discuss standardization, such as a definition and name for a standard unit of hemp, and an agreed standard length for hemp fiber. 

While other countries, such as China, have been growing hemp for years, the industry still lacks a universal standard that countries can apply to trade, says Noller. 

“This is the first time in US history where we have a new crop that’s suddenly gone from prohibited to no longer prohibited,” Noller said. “We have never had something like this.”

The importance of hemp seed certification

As well as being an advocate for hemp standardization and regulatory frameworks, the center is hoping to provide a certification system for hemp seed. The certification would guarantee farmers that the hemp seed they are buying is legal and legitimate. Hemp certification programs are critical to the hemp industry, Noller explained, as hemp seeds can be sold for around $1.20 to $1.40 each and one acre of hemp crop can require up to 2,000 seeds. Similar programs for hemp certification already exist in four other states: North Dakota, Colorado, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Without seed certification programs, farmers who are new to the hemp industry are at risk of falling afoul of seed sellers who, knowingly or unknowingly, sell hemp seeds that will actually grow into “hot” cannabis plants, which have too high a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level to market legally as hemp.

In the US, hemp is defined as cannabis plants that contain less than 0.3 percent by weight THC, which is the intoxicating chemical component of cannabis. Cannabis plants with THC levels in excess of this are classed as drug-type cannabis plants, or marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. 

Hemp plants are tested to ensure that their THC levels fall below the 0.3 percent threshold, but ordinarily this testing happens when the plants have matured and are almost ready to harvest. Plants that exceed 0.3 percent THC are required to be destroyed, meaning that the farmer who has been sold “hot” hemp seeds may see their crop destroyed, with little time left in the growing season to cultivate any legitimate hemp plants.

Trey Willison, a hemp grower operating in Oregon, told the Associated Press of one instance he knew of where an Oregon hemp seed seller was marketing hemp seen online that claimed to have a 3-to-1 ratio CBD (cannabidiol) to THC – but unbeknownst to the farmers, the THC levels were still too high to be legal. 

“[The seeds] look identical, and you can’t tell them apart until four months into the year, when you know something’s wrong,” he said. “A bunch of farms failed, and it originated in Oregon.”

Willison also told of sellers who try to sell what he calls “garbage seed” at significantly marked up prices, sometime as much as 1,000 times the going rate. 

“A lot of people say, ‘Is your seed certified?’ and there’s no such thing as certified seed right now. There’s no test, there’s no oversight... There’s no proof of where the seed is coming from,” said Willison.

“They’re trying. It’s at the very beginning, for sure, but they are trying to do something about this mess.”

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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