Despite the flooding that devastated parts of the Helena Valley in recent weeks, a local hemp farmer is facing the opposite problem: accessing water.
Kim Phillips is continuing her fight for irrigation this year after being denied water access in 2017. Though the state of Montana has authorized her to grow the crops, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation prohibits the use of federally controlled water to irrigate controlled substances such as hemp, which is closely related to marijuana. Phillips intends to use water from Canyon Ferry Reservoir but has been denied access by the Helena Valley Irrigation District because the reservoir is federally controlled.
This has led to a continuing conflict between the state and federal governments, and the clock is ticking for Phillips. June 1 is the last day she can plant her crops and still produce a viable harvest, she said. Her attorney Penelope Strong recently sent a letter to the federal government requesting that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recognize that she fits an exception to the ban on growing hemp under the 2014 federal Farm Bill. She asked the federal agency to provide the use of federal water for her crop.
The exception that Strong cited allows some farmers to legally grow hemp. Section 7606 of the bill, titled “Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research," states that an institution of higher education or a state department agriculture may grow or cultivate hemp "for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research" and "the growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the State in which such institutions of higher education or State department of agriculture is located, and such research occurs."
Phillips is licensed under Montana’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, which may allow her this exception. Steve Davies, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, is well aware of the Farm Bill’s exception. He and his team are working to resolve the issue, and are taking the steps to make the right decision.
“It gets into, essentially, whether the exemption that’s described in the Farm Bill fits the situation for Ms. Phillips,” Davies said. “That’s really what we’re trying to do, is check the legality of whether or not the water can be used for the purposes of growing hemp under that particular exemption of the Farm Bill.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is balancing the provisions of the Farm Bill as well as the Controlled Substances Act in an effort to make a precedent-setting decision about Phillips’ case.
“It’s important we get this decision right, because this does set precedents for how we proceed from here going forward,” Davies said. “We want to be assured that the path forward is absolutely legal and for the intended purposes.”
According to Cort Jensen, attorney for the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is fully compliant with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regulations. The Department holds a license from the DEA that allows it to import hemp seeds from Canada or other countries, and give them to licensed individuals -- such as Phillips -- in the pilot program.
“We believe that there is nothing that Kim owes us, or anybody else, as far as proving she is a licensed grower,” Jensen said.
Not only does Phillips have the proper licensing through the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, but she is also developing a relationship with Montana Tech’s Center for Advanced Mineral Metallurgical Material Processing (CAMP), which helps local entrepreneurs get the resources they need to get their inventions and ideas off the ground. Phillips has been working with Ronda Coguill, the lab manager for material testing at CAMP, to figure out a way to use the hemp after it has been harvested.
“(The entrepreneurs) tell us what they need, and we see what instrumentation or technologies we have that can help them further their invention,” Coguill said. “Kim’s, in this case, is hemp-based products. At the end of her growing season, when she has product, we’ll work with her to see how we can use hemp in various ways to make marketable products.”
This is up to Phillips’ discretion. How she chooses to use the hemp will determine the work that CAMP does to help. The program can draw designs of products, make 3D prints, or create actual products to bolster Phillips’ vision after the hemp is harvested.
But that’s assuming there is a harvest.
Phillips’ attorney filed her letter with the federal government on May 3. Currently there is no resolution, but meetings are being held to discuss the matter further.
Phillips has one week before she has to plant the seeds.
“We are diligently having conversations currently within Justice, and we are trying to get to a resolution as quickly as possible,” Davies said. “We are well aware of Ms. Phillips’ timeline for when she would like to do this. Right now I don’t know whether we’ll have that this week, this month, I don’t know. We’re just trying to get to this as quickly as possible.”