This summer will probably see the biggest industrial hemp crop in Washington’s modern history, as the industry rapidly expands following legal changes at both the federal and state level. The Washington State Department of Agriculture has approved 26 hemp licenses in the six weeks since the law changed—more licenses than the state approved across the entire first two years of the program, according to state data.
Hector Castro, a spokesperson for the WSDA, said that 26 figure doesn’t even reflect additional permits that still need to be processed.
“There’s been a tremendous uptick of interest in producing hemp in Washington,” Castro said. “We have seen a really huge increase in the number of applicants coming through. There are probably 25-30 applications still in the pipeline.”
Washington’s hemp boom comes after two developments. First, Congress removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act last year, effectively legalizing the THC-free form of cannabis. The WSDA was already running a hemp research program, but after Congress acted Washington’s Legislature followed suit and made several changes to the pilot program that appear to make it more attractive to farmers and hemp processors.
Both of these developments are coinciding with an increase of business interest in the plant, driven especially by the growth of the CBD market, which is expected to grow by a factor of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Industrial hemp plants can be grown for an incredibly wide variety of products. Its seeds make a nutritious food oil. Its fibers can be made into clothing and building materials. And industrial hemp can contain CBD, allowing industrial hemp farmers to supply the booming, billion-dollar CBD industry. Industrial hemp is a legal term, not a botanical category, and includes any cannabis plant that does not contain more than 0.5 percent THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in pot.
Castro said the state is still developing new rules for the program, but two immediate changes were making it easier to acquire seeds and reducing a required buffer between hemp farms and state-licensed pot farms.
“Just those two changes seem to have quite an effect on elevating the level of interest or viability of people being able to produce hemp,” Castro said.
Castro said the increase in hemp permits has been a good thing for the viability of the state’s program. WSDA’s hemp program, like most of the agency’s program, is funded almost entirely by the fees hemp licensees pay.
“Prior to this legislative action we had half a dozen or so licensed hemp producers in the state,” Castro said. “You can see that there has just been a significant increase in interest, which is certainly promising for the program and it being sustainable. They are fee-supported so the more licenses that can be issued… the better it is for the program in terms of having enough funds to operate.”
Castro said the WSDA is planning on hiring more employees just to deal with the increase in applications.
The Yakima Valley appears to be particularly interested in growing industrial hemp. The WSDA has issued at least 14 permits to farms in the Yakima Valley area, which is also the world’s second-largest producer of hops. Hops are closely related to cannabis and hemp appears to offer the potential to create a wide variety of hop-replacing products. I first reported on our local hop industry’s interest in hemp last summer.