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Stanislaus County Helps Farmers Grow Hemp With Launch Of New Pilot Program

STANISLAUS COUNTY (CBS13) — Stanislaus County is helping farmers grow hemp. It's all part of a new pilot program which officially launches on July 18.

It allows farmers to grow a limited amount of industrial hemp, a plant that is in the cannabis family but is grown differently and can't get you high.

The county said so far more than 90 farmers have expressed interest in the program and about a third of them have already signed up.

Al Cottrell is a walnut farmer and seed breeder hoping to cash in on the "California green rush."

"It's just a versatile crop it just doesn't seem like there's anything else that would be as fulfilling to grow," he said.

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Right now, he and his businesses partners are preparing a piece property off I-5 in Westley to plant a dozen acres of industrial hemp.

"We're going to start planting on August 1. We're going to be using a variety that's considered an auto-flower that simply takes a life cycle from a four-month crop to a 65 day," he said.

Cottrell can legally grow his crop now that the 2018 Farm Bill has declassified hemp as a federally controlled substance.

That means the plant closely related to cannabis, can now be grown in California as long as it has no more than .3% level of THC the substance that gets you high.

"There are many uses for it," said Cottrell. "There's textile uses, paper, you can make clothes."

The oils can also be extracted to make lotions, ointments, and food. While the fibers can be used for construction.

"There's a chemical called "Hemp-Crete" which is a play on words for concrete," he said. "They use hemp fiber and other mixes to build foundations and buildings and walls."

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His plan is to grow three varieties of hemp to eventually produce between 40 and 60 million seeds to sell to other farmers.

"We're looking to provide seed to cover 20,000 acres of farmers in the area per year and we're going to be working with them direct," he said.

Stanislaus County Ag Commissioner Milton O'Hare said the Board of Supervisors recently decided not to follow the more than 25 other California counties that placed a moratorium on industrial hemp until state and federal regulations can be worked out.

"We wanted to give our growers and those interested at least a chance to try it out," said O'Hare.

Instead, the county launched a one-year pilot program allowing farmers who have land outside of city limits zoned for agricultural use to grow up to 12 acres of hemp.

"So we can see how everything turns out. If there are any odor complaints or any issues," said O'Hare.

If everything goes well, Cottrell said his team will expand their crop from a pilot project to a budding business and he's already eyeing some nearby land to increase his acreage.

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"It is a beginning industry so there are caveats and people with apprehensions and we want to be able to help and move this industry along," he said.

The ordinance requires growers to register with the state and county Ag Commissioner. The plants must also be regularly tested for THC and participating properties must have signage to show the plants are hemp and not marijuana.

The program runs until May 2020.

If you're curious what the difference is between hemp and pot, both are in the cannabis family but are not the same. Hemp is grown outdoors, is typically taller and thinner with skinnier leaves. Marijuana is mostly grown indoors in a carefully-controlled, humid environment.

Hemp is often grown for its oils and fibers, while marijuana is grown for medical purposes and recreational use. The main difference between the two plants is the level of Tetrahydrocannibinol or THC. Marijuana can contain up to 35% of THC, while hemp has a low level, oftentimes under 1%. That means you can't get high from smoking it.

O'Hare said his office has the authority to establish rules for testing THC levels at accepted laboratories and for certifying the THC content in the plants.

The sheriff's office could order growers to destroy their crop if THC levels exceed the 0.3% limit.

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