Industrial hemp

Industrial hemp. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Agriculture)

The long-delayed federal farm bill, which expired on Sept. 30, looks like it's finally moving toward passage as key lawmakers resolved an impasse over the package.

The U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees announced Thursday they have reached an agreement in principle on the legislation, although final details will not be available for at least a couple of days.

"We are working to finalize legal and report language as well as [Congressional Budget Office] scores, but we still have more work to do. We are committed to delivering a new farm bill to America as quickly as possible," said Thursday's announcement from Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich) and Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

"Scores" refers to cost estimates of the bill's impact by the non-partisan CBO.

The $400 billion bill, which will continue agriculture programs for the next five years, has been stalled for more than two months and at one point appeared to be dead in the water.

There are still hurdles ahead, as Roberts told reporters that the White House has not yet signed off on the legislation.

The farm bill must now go back to the House and Senate for final approval. A floor vote could come next week, Roberts said.

If signed into law by President Trump, the farm bill would federally legalize cultivation and distribution of industrial hemp, which is still classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a schedule 1 drug. However, the DEA quietly signaled last May that restrictions on certain parts of the cannabis plant (including hemp) would no longer fall under the DEA's Controlled Substance Act.

The push to legalize industrial hemp has been backed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who thanked the compromise committee Thursday for addressing the issue in the farm bill.

"Thanks for your hard work, @SenPatRoberts, for our farmers, rural communities and all Americans," McConnell tweeted. "Pleased that my provision to legalize industrial hemp is included in the Farm Bill."

Colorado voters OK'd production of industrial hemp through Amendment 64 back in 2012, and the Colorado Department of Agriculture has been in charge of the state's cultivation and certified seed programs ever since.

Industrial hemp is defined in Colorado law as a cannabis plant with 0.3 percent or less Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is the psychoactive ingredient that determines whether a cannabis plant is hemp or marijuana. 

It's used to make a variety of products, including rope, clothing and paper, and oil produced from hemp seeds can be used in lotions.

Two years ago, Colorado became the first state in the nation with certified hemp seeds, which means the seeds have been tested in all possible growing condition statewide and that the plants meet that 0.3 percent or less THC content. That meant growers no longer had to import seeds from other countries such as Canada.

In 2016, Colorado had 260 growers with more than 6,000 acres in production. Today, hemp is being grown in at least 51 out of Colorado's 64 counties with 31,000 acres in production, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Federal legalization of industrial hemp could open the door for growers to apply for several federal programs available under the farm bill, such as crop insurance, conservation reserves and farm loans.

Phil Chavez of Diamond A Farms in Rocky Ford has one of the largest hemp farms in the state. He told Colorado Politics that legalization will lift restrictions on irrigated water from Pueblo Reservoir and other federally-funded structures. He's also had a 20-year history with the National Resource Conservation Service for water conservation with the alfalfa portion with his farm, but once he started farming hemp his whole farm was disqualified from those conservation purposes. That roadblock also could come to an end. The farm bill "will get us all moving in the same direction." And while he hasn't had problems with banking relationships, legalization could end banking problems for other hemp farmers.

The agreement in principle on the farm bill left out a major provision sought by the Trump administration: heightened work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

While the House included that provision in its version, the Senate never seriously considered it.

The bill, which needs 60 votes from the Senate for approval, would never have gained enough Democratic votes to pass with that SNAP modification included, Robert said Thursday.

“You have to have something that will pass the Senate,” he said. “We took a more comprehensive approach.”

The House version could have reduced SNAP benefits to as many as 1 million Americans. 

Both Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner worked on the farm bill while it was in the Senate; Bennet is on the Senate's Agriculture Committee.

The Colorado senators on Thursday cheered what looks like the beginnings of a final agreement.

“We know there have been tough negotiations taking place," a statement from Bennet's office said. "We’re eager to see the details of the final bill. One of Michael’s top priorities is passing a bipartisan farm bill by the end of the year. We’re ready to push this over the finish line for Coloradans.”

Bennet also has been working on some of the the forest management issues that wound up as one of the last major hurdles addressed in the bill.  

"Colorado farmers & ranchers need Congress to pass a #FarmBill by the end of the year," Bennet tweeted. "It’s the least we can do as they face drought & a trade war."

Through a spokesman, Gardner said: "It’s encouraging news that the Farm Bill conferees have reached an agreement in principle on the Farm Bill. [I] look forward to reviewing the agreement as there’s multiple critical provisions for Colorado’s agriculture industry and the thousands of jobs it impacts. This needs to get done soon, and [I] will continue urging Congress to act."

The delay in passing a farm bill meant certain programs went on hiatus, such as trade promotions for agriculture, considered critical during this period of trade wars with China and other nations; and certain conservation programs, such as federal conservation easements, which protect environmentally-sensitive or habitat areas and which puts lands into 10 to 15-year time-out for development.

However,  food stamps, crop insurance and dairy supports  -- some of the farm bill's major programs -- weren't immediately impacted. Crop insurance is funded through the fiscal year that ends in October 2019.

SNAP funding had already been ensured through a continuing resolution, and milk supports have enough funding to keep going until December, which became the next major deadline for completing a farm bill.

The Washington Post contributed.

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