The 2018 Farm Bill went into effect this past January, which legalized industrial hemp and all of its byproducts after decades of prohibition. This new law allows farmers from any state or tribal land to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for permission to break ground with this potentially lucrative new crop. So far, the agency has received hemp plans from seven states and eight tribes, but to date, none have been approved.
One of these applicants, the South Dakota-based Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, is now suing the USDA for failing to approve their application within the timeframe established in the Farm Bill. This law requires the Department of Agriculture to approve all state or tribal hemp applications within 60 days, as long as they meet the requirements established by the law.
According to court documents, the USDA received the Flandreau tribe's application on March 8th. On April 24th, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue sent a letter to the tribe stating that his department would not approve any hemp proposals until it finalized the rules and regulations governing hemp production.
The Department is not expecting to finish drafting these regulations until this fall, however, which is far too late to begin planting hemp this year. Along with their proposal, the tribe notified the USDA that they had already spent money in preparation for planting their first hemp crop this spring, and now stand to lose that money if the agency does not approve their plan.
“A delay in approval of the tribal plan and unlawfully withholding tribal authority curtails receipt of the tribal revenue from hemp production at grave cost to tribal members, putting tribal members’ health, safety, and welfare at risk,” the lawsuit states, according to Argus Leader. Tribal attorney Seth Pearman told ABC affiliate KSFY that if the tribe is unable to plant hemp this season, “we would face potential losses of up to $17 million and in doing so we would have to look at cutting some of those essential programs.”
In response, Sonia Jimenez, USDA deputy administrator of specialty crops, said that the 35-day government shutdown this past winter delayed the Department's progress on the hemp program. In an affidavit, Jimenez also confirmed Purdue's earlier statement. “Until USDA has established regulations, it cannot consistently review state and tribal plans submitted pursuant to the 2018 Farm Bill,” she wrote.
The tribe is arguing that the Farm Bill unequivocally requires the USDA to approve hemp plans within 60 days, regardless of whether or not they have established their official regulations. At a motions hearing this past Wednesday, attorneys for the tribe asked a federal judge to force the USDA to allow them to move forward with their hemp plans before the regulations are complete.