Without widely available certified hemp varieties and with an overeager DEA patrolling the border, hemp farmers struggle to access the seeds they need for successful hemp production.
This article was originally published in HEMP’s Issue 3. Subscribe HERE.
When Brian Furnish became one of the first approved hemp farmers under the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, he didn’t think that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would seize the seeds he intended to plant, but they did. Fortunately, this didn’t deter Furnish. Instead, he teamed up with then-Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer and attorney Jonathan Miller of Frost Brown Todd. The group sued the DEA shortly after the seizure, forcing the DEA to release the seeds.
Four years later, Furnish is still planting hemp on his 2,000-acre farm, but says he hasn’t had to deal with anymore DEA legal battles when it comes to acquiring seeds. Furnish says the process “is much more streamlined now, because the state Department of Agriculture knows how to do it now. They know what the DEA expects [and] the DEA knows what they want.” Still, Furnish says, “It takes a lot of paperwork … but if you do the paperwork right, you can have seed to you in seven to ten days.”
Today, Furnish gets his seeds from Ecofibre, an Australian company that has acquired a large seed bank from around the world.
But other farmers have much more trouble acquiring seeds and genetics than Furnish.
“[Breeders must] be patient and willing to throw out 99 percent of what you are growing.” — Wendy Mosher
Kentucky farmer Michael Johns has taken incredible risks to source hemp seeds. Her family farm, Greenman Gardens, grew from seed last year, but had issues with consistency in the cannabinoid spectrum. Some of their greenhouse plots tested well below the legal THC concentration, whereas other plots, using the same seed variety, tested well above the legal THC concentration. Some of this inconsistency may be related to stress, but it could also be related to unstable seed varieties.
Given the inconsistencies with seed variety, Greenman Gardens has moved towards clones, but in order to clone the plants, the farm had to acquire their own genetics. The process was not simple. After locating a few genetic sources, Greenman Gardens worked with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to ensure the varieties had success growing in Kentucky. Johns then drove out to Colorado to solidify an agreement with a trustworthy genetics source, and then drove the mother plants back to Kentucky for reproduction. For now, Greenman Gardens felt this option was the best way to move their growing operation forward while they search for more stable seed varieties.
Creating Reliable Genetics in the U.S.
Today, there are genetics firms focusing on fixing the seed dilemma in the hemp industry. For example, New West Genetics — a Colorado-based genetics research and development company working to create hemp cultivars for grain, cannabinoids and fiber — has been collecting feral and donated seeds and then crossbreeding the seeds over many generations to create variations. New West then selects for desired traits such as uniformity, cannabinoid profiles, terpenes or seed size.
According to Wendy Mosher, CEO and co-founder of New West Genetics, their varieties are “designed to be harvestable with existing, large-scale mechanical equipment that are on farms right now.”
However, designing these plants isn’t an easy process. It takes years to make a good variety and the process involves a thorough analysis of the genetic traits. Breeders also must “be patient and willing to throw out 99 percent of what you are growing,” says Mosher.
Eventually, the analytical data is used to certify the plant variety, which is helpful for farmers and for protecting the intellectual property through patents. In January, New West Genetics became the first company in the United States to have an approved U.S.-bred certified hemp seed cultivar, NWG-Elite. Now that it is certified, the company will begin to multiply the seed so processors and their farmers can license the variety, but this process also takes considerable time.
Certified seeds are more approachable for farmers, given that the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) also validates traits like germination rate and, in the case of hemp, proof that the variety tests below the 0.3 percent THC threshold.
For Now, Some Farmers Are Importing Their Seed Stock
While there are not many certified hemp varieties in the United States, they are plentiful abroad. Companies like Ecofibre, Atalo Holdings and International Hemp Solutions are trying to solve this issue by importing certified seed varieties for United States breeding, certification and production.
Atalo Holdings, a Kentucky hemp company, has formed a strategic alliance with the Canadian company, Hemp Production Services; however, since hemp is a latitudinal crop, some of the varieties have not done as well in Kentucky’s hot and humid summer climate. For example, varieties like CFX1 and CFX2 are taller in stature and have performed well in Kentucky soils, but some of the newer Canadian varieties are bred to be short in stature. This becomes problematic when hemp is confronted with weed pressure.
One Colorado company, International Hemp Solutions, has established a relationship with the Institute of Medicinal Plants and Natural Fibers in Poland. This institute has a seed bank of over 180 specific hemp cultivars that have been certified and bred over the last forty years. International Hemp Solutions has imported small amounts of these seeds since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill for a variety trials and eventually certification.
Recently, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and AOSCA certified an imported variety called “Bialobreskee,” or what International Hemp Solutions refers to as “B-lab.” This successful certification encouraged the company to import 21 tons of this variety into the United States. According to International Hemp Solutions Board Advisor Tim Gordon, the institute did not have issues with the Drug Enforcement Agency seizing the seeds at the border, but the importation was extremely difficult. If the paperwork is not done perfectly, it can cost companies thousands of dollars a day for Customs and Border Patrol to hold the seeds until documentation is properly completed, Gordon says.
Like Furnish and Johns, Gordon is also a farmer. Gordon’s vision is to drive U.S.-grown hemp into big markets such as the automotive industry. Gordon knows the U.S. industry is not fully scalable yet, but he believes creating large volumes of certified seed banks will help push the industry towards commercialization.
“Success is farmers having access to certified seed with quality and consistency year after year, which is what we’re used to with traditional agriculture,” says Gordon. “We know what corn will do, we know what millet will do, but we’ve had ups and downs with hemp. Certified seed is something that has very stable consistency and quality. As a farmer, this is what I want with my genetics.”