State allows hemp to be grown on agricultural land

Removal of restriction opens more land to farmers 

HUGE NEW SWATHS of land will now be available to hemp growers, after a state agency last week removed one of the major legal barriers to growing hemp in Massachusetts and agreed to let hemp be grown on land that is part of the state’s agricultural preservation restriction program. 

Hemp is a kind of cannabis plant that cannot get a person high. Growing hemp was legalized by Massachusetts voters in 2016 and by the federal government in 2018. But hemp was not included in the state law that defined “agricultural land.” 

That means farmers until now had not been allowed to grow hemp on land that is part of the state’s agricultural preservation restriction, or APR, program. More than 70,000 acres of land are part of the program, in which the state government pays farmers in exchange for the farmers keeping the land available for agricultural use in perpetuity. That presented a major barrier for farmers who put their land into the APR program before hemp was legal – but now want to farm it with the potentially lucrative crop. 

Hemp farmers had been advocating since 2019 for the Legislature change the law and include hemp in the definition of agricultural land. But while both the House and the Senate voted in support of the change, it never made it into a final bill to be signed into law.  

On Wednesday, the Department of Agricultural Resources put out new guidance stating that after holding statewide listening sessions, the department decided to let hemp be grown on APR land. 

“In an effort to support the Massachusetts agricultural community, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources held statewide listening sessions seeking input on ways to improve its long-standing Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, a voluntary program that protects farmland for future agricultural use,” department spokesperson Katie Gronendyke said in a statement issued Friday. “As a result of that public feedback and to provide APR farmers new economic opportunities, [Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources] has reviewed its legal authority and decided to exercise its discretion to allow the growing of hemp and marijuana on APR land in accordance with state and federal law.”  

The guidance clarifies that hemp may be grown on all APR land. Since marijuana remains federally illegal, marijuana can only be grown on land that is not federally funded and is not subject to enforcement by the US Department of Agriculture. Most APR land acquired since the 1990s was purchased using federal funding, so practically this opens up much more land to hemp farmers than to marijuana growers. 

Hemp farmers must still apply for a license from the state agriculture department to grow hemp. Marijuana growers need a license from the Cannabis Control Commission. Farmers must still comply with local zoning ordinances and municipal regulations.  

It’s definitely good news for hemp farmers,” said Julia Agron, director of the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association. Agron said she personally has been seeking land to lease to expand her hemp grow, but most farmland available for lease has an APR restriction. 

Agron said she is worried that many farmers remain cautious about planting or expanding hemp crops because of the other restrictions still in place on how hemp can be used. Currently, Massachusetts hemp farmers can only sell their products legally for skin care products and fabrics – not for the more lucrative smokable flower or CBD oil to be used in food products or dietary supplements. A recently passed bill is expected to expand the market for hemp by allowing hemp sales to legal marijuana retailers, but regulators are still working out exactly what products will be allowed to be sold and when.  

Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who sponsored a bill to let hemp be grown on APR land, said he is very excited that the state agriculture department made the decision, though he wishes it could have been done sooner. “I think it’s going to be a real additional opportunity for farmers,” Pignatelli said.  

“I really think hemp could be potentially a bigger and better cash crop than marijuana,” Pignatelli said, suggesting that there are more ways to use hemp than marijuana and a farmer does not need as large a plot of land to grow hemp and still earn money.