The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to lengthen a public comment period it recently reopened for proposed hemp rules.
USDA announced it was reopening the comment period last week, citing intense demand from stakeholders who have expressed concern about a number of specific regulations. The department outlined 12 areas where they’re seeking additional feedback, including several that industry representatives have identified as very consequential.
But while they’re giving interested parties 30 days to send additional input after the original comment period—which saw more than 4,600 submissions—SBA’s Office of Advocacy said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday that it’s not enough time for small businesses. They’re asking for at least 60 days.
“Advocacy is concerned that the current comment period does not allow for small businesses to prepare the types of detailed analyses and data that the agency is requesting,” the office wrote. “Advocacy heard from several hemp producers in Arizona, North Carolina, New York, and Vermont, and state farm bureaus who are concerned about the length and timing of the latest comment period.”
It’s also harvest season in the mid-Atlantic and south, SBA said, and that “places a strain on their ability to both manage their small business and dedicate the time and attention necessary to provide the detailed comments” USDA is requesting. Further, waiting for the close of harvest season could help inform responses.
“Finally, the ongoing global pandemic as well as many other ongoing natural disasters nation-wide have presented additional strains and unique challenges to agricultural operations. Producers are experiencing delays in shipping and transport, labor challenges, and difficulty in managing familial obligations coupled with farming,” the letter states.
“Advocacy urges [USDA] to extend the public comment period to allow for small businesses to meaningfully participate in this rulemaking process,” it concludes. “The information that [USDA] is seeking is comprehensive and detailed and requires additional time and preparation.”
While SBA has been an advocate for hemp farmers, the same can’t be said for the marijuana industry. For example, the agency in March that marijuana businesses are not eligible for disaster relief loans to lessen the blow of the coronavirus pandemic.
All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp, when finalized, is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month wrote to Perdue, similarly asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.
As it stands, the earlier pilot program is set to expire on October 31. The senators aren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA last month.
Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
However, USDA has previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.
Read SBA’s letter to USDA on extending the hemp rules comment period below: