Officials hope the Garden State is on the brink of a new chapter in its agricultural history, now that the federal government has signed off on its plans to grow and sell hemp, a nonintoxicating cousin to marijuana.
“Hemp is an amazing product. It can be used in 25,000 different uses, whether it’s building materials or pharmaceuticals or beauty products,” said Douglas Fisher, New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture. “We clearly want to be a center for the growing of hemp and processing of hemp.”
New Jersey was one of the first three states to receive the endorsement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for hemp production, a step made possible by the federal 2018 Farm Bill, which reclassified the plant as an agricultural crop. Because of its botanical likeness to marijuana, Congress had banned production of hemp in 1970 under the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act.
In August, even as attempts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey were sidelined, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation allowing the cultivation, processing and distribution of hemp in the state.
Officials say interest among growers has been high in the state. Fisher said applications for licenses to grow and process hemp will be available online, adding that there’s no preset limit to how many will be handed out.
“So far, there’s at least over 300 very interested people who want to get involved in growing hemp at the current time,” said Joe Zoltowski, plant industry division director for the state Agriculture Department.
Among the farmers who are interested is Ken Vande Vrede, who already has a line of hemp products that contain CBD, a compound that is found in both marijuana and hemp. Vande Vrede cultivates his crop and processes it into things like gummies, oils and creams that people use for relaxation and soothing, in other parts of the country.
From basil to hemp
“Our ultimate goal is to bring everything back to New Jersey,” said Vande Vrede who said he’s waiting for the New Jersey application process to begin so he can move forward with plans to cultivate and process hemp in his greenhouses, where he’s now growing basil.
Because federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal drug, hemp producers must keep levels of THC, the intoxicating compound in marijuana, below 0.3% in their crops and products. Oversight is split between Washington and Trenton, with the federal Food and Drug Administration retaining responsibility over the manufacture of products for human and animal consumption, according to Zoltowski.
“The only way to really ensure the THC levels is by testing,” he noted. “So we have inspectors that would go out to the fields, or the growers, or the greenhouses, collect samples, bring [them] back to the lab, run the tests and that would be your final determinant as to pass or fail.”
Some experimental hemp growers have a hard time keeping THC below the limit, which is why the state Department of Agriculture is working closely with Rutgers scientists — the ones who engineer strawberries, peppers and other chemically sensitive organics — to see what seeds work best for New Jersey’s climate, according to where you are in the state.
“This plant is very hardy,” Zoltowski said. “It’s a weed, so it can be grown almost anywhere. It grows well in droughty conditions out west — for example, Colorado, Arizona — grows well in Pennsylvania and New York.”
Fisher was asked whether that state’s progress with hemp might be an indication that it can move forward on now-stalled plans to legalize marijuana.
“We’re doing hemp right now,” he said. “Marijuana is a whole other chapter in this.”