Managing Colorado’s Hemp Program: An Interview with Brian Koontz

Managing Colorado’s Hemp Program: An Interview with Brian Koontz
February 19, 2020

The winter months, between the autumn harvest and the next spring planting season, offer a brief moment of introspection for Brian Koontz. Mr. Koontz is the Industrial Hemp Program Manager for the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA). 

The former head of the field services division, where he supervised inspection of the state’s crops, Koontz became the head of Colorado’s hemp program last June. He had to hit the ground running to keep up with the rapidly growing hemp industry in the Centennial State. Two years ago, he told Hemp Benchmarks, his department handled around 1,000 hemp cultivation registrations. Last year, there were about 2,700 registrations and 2,000 registrants. This year in January, about 100 people registered to grow hemp in Colorado, compared to 60 in January 2019.

The CDA, he said, “has put tremendous resources” into the state’s hemp program to provide oversight of the booming sector. “I was able to use my old team of inspectors to come in here and help me compile planting and harvesting reports,” he added.

Concerns about Federal Hemp Production Rules

Koontz’s meeting with Hemp Benchmarks came just a day after Colorado Governor Jared Polis, along with several other state officials, submitted an official response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), regarding the agency’s Interim Final Rule (IFR) for the establishment of a legal hemp program in the U.S.

Koontz and Governor Polis at the Hemp Bill signing (Senate Bill) 19-220 ceremony on 5/29/2019

The USDA has been asking for feedback from both state governments and the general public about the IFR, which is in effect until the beginning of November 2021. States intending to host legal hemp farming must have their programs approved by the USDA by November 2020. The IFR has come under significant criticism for, among other issues, its hemp sampling and testing protocols, how THC concentration is to be calculated, and its requirement that laboratories used to test hemp for THC levels be registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

In a press statement, Governor Polis warned that the IFR, as currently written, “does not support best practices in hemp production at a critical time in the development of this important industry.”

“These regulations are not scalable or easily implemented in a state with a robust hemp industry as large as ours is in Colorado,” added Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. “Small farming operations will have the hardest time complying with these rules and we are working to help ensure all hemp producers in the state can be successful.”

Among Colorado’s main critiques with the IFR, Koontz said, are its lack of workable options for hemp disposal and remediation, the requirement to test for both delta-9 THC and THCa, and in particular its mandate that hemp crop samples be tested within 15 days of harvest.

Due to Colorado’s extremes of temperature and elevation there are numerous different growing climates in the state, which can lead to variable harvest times for hemp. While the peak harvest period is in late September, “to collect a regulatory sample within 15 days of when it’s harvested or the intended harvest date, in my mind that’s a pretty unrealistic window to stick with,” Koontz said.

Testing hemp even 30 days before harvest can become a challenge, Koontz noted, given the size of the state’s hemp crop. “Just getting it collected, getting it to the lab; not having the farmer be burdened with having to wait for samples to be transferred to a lab, to be analyzed and turned around,” he said. “I mean, that process itself took us 20 days (for the 2019 harvest).”

There is also the issue that there are only two DEA-certified hemp testing laboratories in Colorado, according to the USDA website. “It’s extremely restrictive to use DEA-registered labs,” Koontz said. “In our comments we’re saying that’s a prohibition. Our plan is going to address that. Colorado has already got 15 or 16 state-certified labs that can test marijuana.”

Other states have also taken issue with the IFR. In late January, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles announced that his state would continue with its hemp research pilot program, rather than a commercial hemp program, for one more year. 

“The industry has changed dramatically, but the national hemp marketplace is experiencing some real challenges,” Quarles said in a statement. “After much discussion with industry stakeholders in Kentucky, I determined our state will operate our current hemp program for another year as we responsibly make plans to take Kentucky’s hemp industry into the next phase in 2021 and beyond.”

Koontz said he recently spoke with his hemp program counterpart in Kentucky, who agreed that a lot of the IFR’s regulations are unrealistic when it comes to the current on-the-ground realities of the nation’s hemp sector. “It’s too restrictive,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a turnaround of time to adapt to what the USDA would allow.”

Koontz at unidentified hemp grow

CHAMP and Public Feedback

Colorado has its own statewide hemp initiative called CHAMP – the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan – which began last May. As part of the program the CDA has been partnering with state and tribal agencies and officials, as well as industry experts involved in the hemp supply chain. That includes those involved in hemp cultivation, testing, research, processing, finance, and insurance. The CHAMP report is scheduled to come out around the end of May 2020. “It will be a regulatory blueprint about how the hemp industry can be implemented successfully,” Koontz said.

The public has also been involved, giving Koontz, other CDA officials, and members of the so-called “stakeholder group” feedback and recommendations at a series of town hall meetings. And Koontz says he’s been fielding a lot of questions. The big ones, he said, are: “where can I get reliable genetics? How can I be assured I’m not taken advantage of? How can I buy seed that’s warranted or certified? How can I get seeds or clones that I know, when they mature, are going to be 0.3% THC?”

Another concern he hears often involves hemp transportation issues: “How can I ensure that once it leaves my registered land area, that it will be considered legal? That my driver will not be arrested or my cargo seized? It’s going to be a huge challenge,” he added.

Looking Ahead

Given all these variables, Koontz was reluctant to make any predictions about the 2020 hemp season in his state. “I wish I knew,” he told Hemp Benchmarks. “It’s very hard to do budget forecasting. But I suspect it’s going to continue to grow.”

Koontz noted that while the size of Colorado’s hemp crop has more or less doubled every year since the state legalized hemp in 2014, “I don’t see that happening again this year. If you drive around the state there are still hemp fields standing that were never harvested. However I still think it’s going to grow. Traditional (agriculture) is more and more on-board with it, now that it’s in the Farm Bill. And a lot of folks who were barely getting by on growing corn or grains are benefiting off of hemp as a higher-value crop.”