Legislation designed to further develop North Carolina’s fast-growing hemp industry, increase agritourism and make overhauling open-air waste storage systems easier for industrial-scale hog farms passed the state Senate on Monday.
The legislature’s wide-ranging annual Farm Act passed 31-14 and now goes to the House.
During floor debate, Senate Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote on an amendment introduced by Democratic Sen. Harper Peterson of New Hanover County that would have prohibited construction of dry litter poultry facilities in the 100-year flood plain.
Some lawmakers, such as Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham County, were unhappy with the comprehensive nature of the bill. Woodard said that although he agreed with some sections of the bill, others gave him “some heartburn.”
“The needs of the myriad parts of our agriculture industry are incredibly diverse. … To put all these into one bill and ask for one up-down vote, I think is unfair to us; it’s unfair to our farmers and to our agriculture community,” he said.
The bill’s proposed ban on smokable hemp in December 2020 received a lot of attention during committee debates. Smokable hemp is a new product that came on the scene after hemp was removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act in 2018 and has quickly become a lucrative market for farmers, leaving lawmakers playing catch-up to regulate it.
Although smokable hemp doesn’t produce a high, the dried hemp flowers that are smoked look and smell a lot like marijuana, which law enforcement has said is a problem. Farmers opposed to the ban say smokable hemp can sell for as much as $1,000 per pound.
Currently, there is no field test on the market that can discern whether a product is marijuana or legal hemp, but bill sponsor Republican Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County has said that he thinks one will be sold soon.
If a field test becomes available, Jackson said, lawmakers would probably revisit the issue.
“We tried to craft this in a way that we can best put some parameters around this industry and make it a viable industry for this state,” he said when explaining the bill on the Senate floor. Senate lawmakers didn’t discuss the issue further during Monday’s floor debate.
Hemp is being explored as a potential new cash crop at a time when tobacco prices in the traditional tobacco-farming state have dropped.
Environmental activists have criticized the bill’s proposed hog farm changes, which would allow new state permits for open-air waste pits and modifications to capture biogas from these pits to be used for energy production. The permits would be allowed if they don’t result in expanded hog production at the farms or if facilities meet high environmental performance standards.
The bill also would make some hog farm records confidential, which environmental advocates worry would undermine transparency and environmental protections. Jackson has said that these changes would merely mirror federal law.
However, lawmakers did not debate or change the bill’s hog farm regulations Monday.