Hemp is a new opportunity for Massachusetts farmers -- but current state law is locking them out

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Growing hemp is now legal in Massachusetts, and in the United States. But many Massachusetts farmers still cannot grow hemp due to a barrier posed by state law relating to the definition of agricultural land.

Lawmakers are considering whether to change that law through a provision that could emerge soon for a final vote.

“We see farmers very interested in trying to diversify their crops,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who introduced a bill to change the law. “This stands to be a profitable crop as well. It’s useful for the commonwealth and for farmers trying to make a living.”

Hemp is made from the cannabis plant. But unlike another of the plants products — marijuana — hemp cannot get someone high. It is used to make fabrics and fibers and to extract CBD oil, which has therapeutic qualities.

Massachusetts legalized hemp in the same 2016 law that legalized recreational marijuana. The state set up a permitting process in 2018, and issued 13 licenses that year to grow hemp.

The federal government then made it federally legal to grow hemp as part of a farm bill that passed in December 2018.

The problem for many farmers is that state law has a specific definition for what can be grown on agricultural, or “horticultural,” land. The law includes fruit, vegetables, flowers, tobacco and Christmas trees — but not hemp.

Land designated as agricultural is taxed at a lower rate. So a farmer who grows hemp would jeopardize that lower tax rate.

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In addition, the state has an agricultural preservation restriction program, in which the state pays the farmer the difference between the “fair market value” and the agricultural value of their land in exchange for a permanent restriction on the land, which forbids any use that would hurt the land’s agricultural viability. The goal is to preserve land for agriculture and restrict development when farmers are faced with financial pressures. Today, more than 73,000 acres of Massachusetts land fall under an agricultural preservation restriction.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources says it cannot allow hemp to be grown on agricultural preservation restriction land until the Legislature clarifies whether hemp-related activities fall within the definition of horticultural land.

A bill sponsored by Hinds and Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, would add hemp to the state’s definition of horticultural use. That would allow farmers to grow hemp on land with an agricultural preservation restriction and to pay the agricultural tax rate on land where hemp is grown.

Ted Dobson, who owns Equinox Farm in Sheffield, is interested in growing both marijuana and hemp and been advocating for the change.

Ted Dobson, who owns Equinox Farm in Sheffield, is interested in growing both marijuana and hemp and been advocating for a change to state law.

Ted Dobson, who owns Equinox Farm in Sheffield, is interested in growing both marijuana and hemp and been advocating for a change to state law.

Dobson said farmers like him, who have land with an agricultural preservation restriction, “are thinking we’ve done the right thing in preserving land for agriculture and trying to make a living growing crops.” But they are then left out of the potential hemp market.

“Hemp’s a brand new legal crop with great cash value potential per acre,” Dobson said.

Mark Amato, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, said changing the law “could affect a pretty wide swath of the agricultural community.” Amato said there are very few farmers in Massachusetts who do not have some land registered as horticultural.

Amato said there is “a lot of buzz” among farmers about the potential for growing hemp. “Overnight, a new crop has been legalized,” Amato said. “Because it was illegal for so long, it’s a very new marketplace that’s not well developed.”

“It’s the first time a new opportunity like this has been presented to our industry in a very long time,” Amato said.

Hinds and Pignatelli introduce their proposal as a standalone bill. It was also included in a supplemental budget bill proposed by the governor, and in the version passed by the Senate. It was not in a version passed by the House, so it will be up to a committee of House-Senate negotiators to decide whether to include it in the final version of the budget bill.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who cosponsored Pignatelli’s bill, said sponsors are talking to House leadership about how important the policy is for Western Massachusetts farmers.

“It will make a difference for farmers, and if we do it now, they can take advantage of this growing season,” Farley-Bouvier said.

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