Seneca Nation to enter hemp growing industry with USDA approval

The USDA recently approved the Seneca Nation Hemp Production Plan that will allow the Senecas to move forward and enter the commercial hemp growing industry. The Seneca Nation Hemp Production Ordinance, as amended, was approved at the Regular Session of Council on April 11.

SALAMANCA — In recent months, the Seneca Nation has been diligently working on its Hemp Production Plan to enter this new industry in an effort to revive agriculture on Seneca lands.

Jessica Crouse, hemp compliance administrator for the Nation, said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) formally approved the Nation’s plan March 30. She said the Seneca Nation Hemp Production Ordinance, as amended, was approved at the Regular Session of Council on April 11, which is a huge step forward.

The Hemp Ordinance covers the production of hemp, which means the growing, handling, storing and marketing of hemp in relation to production, Crouse said. She said individuals and business entities may apply for licensure on Seneca Territory, and there are mechanisms in place that will require producers to safeguard the soil, water and air quality.

“This means the Seneca Nation has primary regulatory responsibility over the production of hemp on Seneca Territory,” she explained. “Outside of our territory, it is in the realm of the respective state or federal jurisdiction.”

Hemp has thousands of uses including clothing, diapers, canvas, rope, paper, caulking, molded parts, oil paints, hempcrete, varnishes, fuel, fiberboard, insulation and skin products and hemp seed can be used for oil and food.

The Nation has been seriously working on its Hemp Production Plan since early 2019. Crouse said the plan was given the green-light in March when the USDA announced approved hemp regulatory plans for three more tribes: the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Seneca Nation, bringing the total number of tribes with hemp plans to 17.

“They were great to work with and communication was key ensuring the concerns of the Seneca Nation were addressed,” she said. “I had the honor and privilege to attend a USDA Tribal Listening Session in Las Vegas, and it was great to connect and learn from other nations about how they envision their programs going forward.”

Crouse said the USDA generally approved a tribal plan every 10 days, but it all depends upon time of submission. The USDA has 60 days from submission to approve or deny a plan. She said it’s up to each tribe to craft a plan as it fits their own laws, jurisdictions, producers and scope of their vision.

“The Seneca Nation has chosen to exercise their authority over the industry on their lands, just as other nations/tribes and states have done, yet others have ceded their authority to the federal government for the time-being,” she explained. “Thus, the program will incorporate Seneca laws already in place on Territory that pertain to the hemp industry, such as our stance on pesticides and other precedents that will protect our natural resources.

“At this point in the program, it is up to the licensed producer to decide which variety of hemp they may grow,” Crouse continued. “If they feel so inclined, they could try more than one varietal, so long as the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content stays within compliance of 0.3% or less to be classified as industrial hemp.”

Because the industry is new, Crouse hopes people will take the opportunity to educate themselves on the many benefits of industrial hemp. She said there are many advocacy organizations in the region that can help people learn how they can grow in this industry. The role she currently serves is as a regulatory arm to ensure compliance with Hemp Ordinance, as amended.

The Senecas have already taken steps toward developing their hemp program, providing feedback on the hemp program continuously, as it takes many minds to get this going, Crouse said.

“(Senecas) have always had their respective gardens, and many of our community buildings have raised beds that produce agricultural goods, but the Seneca Nation, as an entity, took a step forward and entrusted the agriculture department to develop Gakwi:yo:h Farms (in Collins),” she said.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms is headed by Michael Snyder who worked in the “Food is Our Medicine Project” prior to inception of the farm. Crouse said he brings a great deal of determination and dedication into seeing the farm succeed.

Crouse said the extremely popular cannabidiol (CBD) that is commercially available in multiple forms has been infiltrating markets by storm. But, she said, there are calculated risks involved with CBD because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only one CBD drug, Epidiolex, which is used to treat a rare form of epilepsy.

Now that the industry has the ‘green-light’ to grow this new crop, Crouse said more research avenues are opening to fully vet the safety and develop standards to ensure public health.

“It’s an exciting time to watch how this plant may change our world one seed or one clone at a time,” she said. “With the assertion of the Seneca Nation, combined with entrepreneurs with the passion to grow hemp, the possibilities abound amid a rapidly growing market.

“Agriculture is hard work and it will take the collaboration of astute farming and creative market alignments to ensure that this versatile crop takes a strong root on Seneca lands.”

Prior to becoming a part of the Seneca Nation’s agriculture movement, Crouse earned her Master of Food and Agriculture Law & Policy (M.F.A.L.P.) at the Vermont School of Law. She said the Nation’s agriculture movement was already rolling when she joined that same year.

In March 2019, she was given the opportunity to apply her skills as a Project Manager for the Seneca Nation’s Agriculture Department, Allegany Territory. She started her position as Hemp Compliance Administrator in October 2019 and is currently leading the product’s development.

The goal of the Seneca Nation was to have its Hemp Production Plan submitted and approved prior to the 2020 outdoor growing season. Although that goal has been met, Crouse said the Nation is currently focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to operate with the health and safety of the community at the forefront.

According to the USDA, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill) authorized the production of hemp and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s schedule of Controlled Substances.

It also directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue regulations and guidance to implement a program to create a consistent regulatory framework around production of hemp throughout the United States. The establishment of hemp as a regulated commodity also paves the way for U.S. hemp farmers to participate in other USDA farm programs.

For more information about the 2018 Farm Bill and Hemp Programs, visit online at ams.usda.gov and usda.gov/topics/hemp.

(Contact press reporter Deb Everts at salpressdeb@gmail.com.)