‘Great opportunity to share knowledge and research’: Q&A with Caren Wilcox, head of fledgling US Hemp Growers Association

‘Great opportunity to share knowledge and research’: Q&A with Caren Wilcox, head of fledgling US Hemp Growers Association

In agriculture, it’s rare that a new commodity presents such new opportunities for farmers and businesses in the way hemp has.

And the nascent industry has experienced its share of growing pains since the 2014 Farm Bill established a pilot research program for the crop in the United States and the 2018 Farm Bill made hemp a legal commodity.

To represent farmer interests, a group of industry members recently formed the U.S. Hemp Growers Association (USHGA), a national nonprofit organization focused on educating and advocating for hemp farmers.

The organization’s goals include:

  • Providing an information-sharing network.
  • Facilitation of certified seed and stable genetics.
  • Connecting member growers with equipment and potential buyers.

With a background in agricultural policy working as a top official for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leading the Organic Trade Association and directing government relations for The Hershey Co., new USGHA executive director Caren Wilcox is primed to take on the role advocating for the nation’s hemp farmers.

Hemp Industry Daily caught up with Wilcox to learn more about the new organization and its goals and what hemp growers can expect to see if they become members.

Why did the founders of the U.S. Hemp Growers Association feel it was necessary to start a new organization in the hemp industry?

The founders were very cognizant of the fact that there were quite a few smaller hemp farming organizations, but there was no national association trying to serve the hemp-grower community across the United States.

There’s certainly going to be strength in numbers as we build across the country, but there’s also a great opportunity to share knowledge and research in an organized fashion for the whole community.

What role does USHGA plan to play in the hemp research community? Will it collect funds for research and define research priorities?

We plan to coordinate and communicate with the research community. The research community is quite organized in the land-grant (university) system, but there are private places that are doing research also.

We hope to build that as a way for the farmers to get the latest and best information about growing in their region or as the environment changes.

I hope that we’re going to look for the research gaps by communicating with the current researchers, and we do have the capacity to raise nonprofit funds, so we may look at that or we may organize to talk to the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which has funds for specialty crops.

We’re going to be talking to FAR, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which is a public-private foundation affiliated with USDA. It has private money and public money.

What makes this group different from the Hemp Industries Association, National Hemp Association, Vote Hemp and other hemp groups?

Most of those have been primarily representing either information for consumers about hemp products and have been representing processors (making) hemp into hemp products.

They have started some farm outreach, and we are talking to them about how we can be coordinated with them.

Some groups have been organized for the very good purpose of getting hemp legal.

But now we need to be sure that the growers are able to take advantage of the benefit of having hemp no longer one category – and the advantage of being able to grow the different kinds of hemp that are going to make flooring and insulation and hempcrete and biofuel and certain specific food products like hemp seed and hemp oil.

What can members expect to see from the U.S. Hemp Growers Association?

The benefits are training, information and networking to connect growers with buyers.

We’ve had approaches from various parts of the community that would like to be able to network together, and our membership software is going to permit that, so it’ll permit smaller groups to communicate about their issues.

There will be education. We have a couple of really great farmers who are really good communicators who are agreeing to help us with that so that we can film them and have their e-learning on our site.

Coordinated advocacy is going to be an advantage for them. We’re talking to registered contract lobbyists about registering for us. We intend to be commenting on the interim final rule, and we’re part way there with that.

Your website says that members get “access to our library of genetics.” What does that mean?

We have a relationship with seed companies such as Bija Hemp and HiLo, and we will have others.

We will facilitate farmers knowing where seed is available, and it will be up to them to obtain it. We are not a wholesaler.

We expect supply to be better this crop year, but we cannot “guarantee” supply will meet demand.

The USDA has signaled that they want to see a hemp checkoff program. As a former USDA official, what’s your take on a national hemp checkoff? How much would it help the industry?

Well, it’s a real possibility – but it’s never easy to get a checkoff.

It’s a highly political process, and I know that there are groups working on it right now, including the Hemp Farmers Alliance that’s merging into our group, so we will be looking at it.

When you do a checkoff, it’s the growers that have to vote, and they have to agree that they’re going to give part of their money for marketing.

So I think there’s probably quite a bit of work to be done looking at what would be the goal of the checkoff.

Given your experience leading the Organic Trade Alliance, how prevalent do you think organic production will be in the hemp industry in the future? Will the USHGA advocate for additional methods of production?

It’s challenging to grow organic, so I don’t want to discount that. You have to be a really good farmer to know how to grow organic.

On the other hand, if you’re going to grow hemp to make hempcrete and insulation, there’s very little need to grow that on a strict organic plan.

Conventional farmers have seen that there are things that they can do that will be more sustainable without going 100% organic.

What I hope is that everyone will try to farm sustainably – and some will farm organically because of the products that they’re going to make.

It was interesting to me that the controls on the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) list, most of them seem to be OMRI-approved (Organic Materials Review Institute), which means that they can be used in organic production.

How likely it is that the USDA is going to change the interim final rule?

I want to be clear, I have not been in to the USDA to talk to them. I’m planning to do that.

From what I’ve heard, there is a desire in there to have some modifications.

The (President Donald Trump) administration seems to be looking at this as a holistic interim final rule (IFR).

The law mandated that the USDA cooperate and consult with the U.S. Department of Justice, and it’s very clear from reading the IFR that they did that very thoroughly.

And so how much some of that will be maintained, I’m not sure.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Laura Drotleff can be reached at [email protected]

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