Industrial hemp farms get approval in Santa Clara County
File photo.

Although the cultivation of industrial hemp in California does not yet have federal approval, Santa Clara County has approved guidelines to get farmers rolling as soon they get the green light.

Supervisors added industrial hemp regulations to the county’s zoning ordinance Aug. 25, making regulation of the crop a part of county code.

Supervisors unanimously approved hemp farms up to 250 acres in size with a quarter-mile buffer from residential areas, schools and other areas considered sensitive. Other regulations include a 200-foot setback from public and private rights of ways, posting hemp operation signs and compulsory testing of THC levels in plants. THC is the compound that gives pot its high. 

Passage of the federal 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the government’s list of controlled substances and allows it to be cultivated lawfully for registered growers across the country. But there’s more paperwork to make this a reality. Every state has to submit its own regulation plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval, and California has not yet received approval for its plan.

That hasn’t stopped county planners from preparing regulations to permit the cultivation, research, and processing of hemp. Industrial hemp, under federal law, is required to contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Anything higher, according to the federal government, and that hemp is considered marijuana and remains a Schedule I controlled substance, which is illegal on the federal level. 

The state’s current plan pending federal approval reserves the right for the destruction of crops not in compliance with regulations, particularly the stringent THC level testing.

Farmers, mostly representing small operations, asked supervisors to relax of the proposed regulations.

“The private right-of-way setback would result in a 9-acre loss on a 67-acre property,” said Sean Milligan, who said he represented the Uesugi property in Gilroy. “And in our opinion, it is an unnecessary restraint on our growing operations.”

Another member of the public, who went by “Nake” and did not give his last name, said the setbacks are designed to eliminate odors but will restrict small farmers and benefit large producers. He argued odors from industrial hemp would carry further than the proposed setbacks, making them pointless and too restrictive.

“The bottom line is that all agricultural products have varying smells,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman said. “Farming is tough enough as it is and the best way for us to protect our agriculture is to allow farmers to grow valuable and useful crops unhindered by overregulation.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg concurred: “You can smell garlic from miles away but we don’t talk about creating buffer zones there,” she said. 

Still, all farms will have to comply with the quarter-mile buffer zone. According to county analysis, this leaves 1,845 eligible parcels of land in Santa Clara County open to hemp production, totaling 27,640 eligible acres.

The approval requires county planners to report back in two years to make any changes based on successes and failures of the regulations.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @MadelynGReese 

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