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County Supervisors Signal Readiness To OK Industrial Hemp Production

MADERA COUNTY — The Madera County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, July 2 voted 4-to-1 to direct the County’s agricultural commissioner to begin crafting an ordinance to regulate the cultivation of industrial hemp in Madera County.

“This is a cash crop that Madera County can really make some money on,” said Supervisor Tom Wheeler. “People have been using [hemp] since George Washington’s time. He grew it himself.”

Wheeler added, “Today, the medicine part of it is where the big money is.” Wheeler said he uses CBD oil — which is produced from industrial hemp — to treat his own pain. “The stuff really works.”

Supervisor David Rogers agreed, mentioning a friend who used the oil to treat pain from cancer. “CBD allows people to have a decent life when they are in pain,” Rogers affirmed while noting that growing hemp has become increasingly profitable. “I don’t want to hinder our farmers from growing a legitimate crop.”

Supervisors had planned to consider adopting an industrial hemp ordinance in March but the item was pulled from the board’s agenda at the last minute.

In a brief but highly emotional plea before Tuesday’s vote, Supervisor Max Rodriguez tried to convince his fellow board members to keep the current marijuana and hemp moratoriums in place. “What is our society coming to?” Rodriguez said. “There are already so many ways for people to get high.”

The move by supervisors Tuesday is an attempt to keep pace with what Ag Commissioner Stevie McNeill describes as “the Wild West” — the scramble by entrepreneurs and farmers alike to get a piece of the booming CBD oil craze, which is projected to be a $22 billion business by 2022.

Industrial hemp is marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, containing no more than three-tenths of 1 percent THC, the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high.

Hemp may not give users a buzz but lately CBD oil made from it has become a wildly popular remedy for just about every pain, ache or illness. CBD oil is also being touted more and more as an answer to the opioid epidemic.

According to McNeill, industrial hemp farmers around the country growing for CBD use are reportedly grossing as much as $50,000 an acre. By comparison, almonds gross about $5,200 per acre.

And industrial hemp does not take any more water to grow than cotton or almonds, about 2 to 3 acre/feet per acre — and it can yield two crops a year.

But two dozen counties around the Golden State still currently have some type of “temporary suspension” ordinances with regard to industrial hemp, including Mariposa, Merced and Tulare. The bans remain in place, in part, because of the difficulty of differentiating industrial hemp from medical and recreational marijuana — or cannabis. Since since hemp and cannabis flowers look the same, the process usually requires lab testing to gauge a plant’s THC content.

Ag Commissioner McNeill told supervisors this week: “With the price per acre that [hemp for] CBD is bringing, you can understand why there’s certainly a lot of interest out there from the public.”

Five people have registered with the County and paid a $900 fee to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to grow hemp in Madera County.

“Once they do that and if they have met all the requirements, they are allowed to grow it,” said McNeill, who added that she’s not sure if industrial hemp operations have actually started planting yet.

“We haven’t had a chance to follow up with them,” she said. “Right now, it’s like the Wild West.”

The Madera County Farm Bureau has yet to take a formal position on industrial hemp. MCFB Executive Director Christina Beckstead sat in on Tuesday’s supervisor’s meeting to listen to Commissioner McNeil’s presentation to the board about industrial hemp.

The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill opened the door for industrial hemp in the U.S. and the 2018 Farm Bill allowed for commercial cultivation.

California’s Proposition 64, passed by voters in 2016, paved the way for sales of recreational marijuana and also the cultivation and production of industrial hemp — which can gross as much as $50,000 to $55,000 per acre according to industry reports.

Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney also attended Tuesday’s board meeting and afterward, said his department is ready for industrial hemp.

“The County needs to move ahead intelligently now,” the sheriff said. “I hope whatever ordinance the board passes is black and white — and will allow us to police things on a very clear line.”

Sheriff Varney said he is expecting the County’s new industrial hemp ordinance to be in place by January 2020. McNeill said she hopes to return to supervisors within a month or so with a more specific plan.

“First, I need to talk to the county counsel, the sheriff and the D.A.,” McNeill said Tuesday. “Then I’ve got to put together some options. It’s clear the board wants me to come back with something as soon as possible.

McNeil’s small department, which includes seven inspectors, will receive $2,000 from the CDFA to defray the cost of research required to get an industrial hemp ordinance in place.

The CDFA is the state agency charged with oversight of California’s nascent industrial hemp industry and McNeil must coordinate her activities with rapidly evolving directives from CDFA officials.

“I’m here to start a dialogue,” McNeil told supervisors Tuesday. “Industrial hemp is here. It’s already happening in our county.”

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