SOURCEThomas Ivory, Jr. for the NHA

A flock of little black birds fluttered in the late autumn sunlight. From seeding flower-head to seeding flower-head they descended as a group, landing perched on the tall and many mature female hemp plants swaying in the warm breeze.

The birds knew the value of those hemp seeds, as delicious and fulfilling as they may have been. And so did the gazing Sterling, Colorado, Industrial Hemp farmer, Bill Billings, founder of Colorado Hemp Project. State law requires hemp farmers to grow below 0.3% THC, “Which is the biggest bull-shit law on the planet,” said Billings. Without a certified seed program, the standards of hemp plants are hard to agree upon.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 3.43.14 PMThis year, 2016, is the first year the Colorado Department of Agriculture introduces the CDA Approved Certified Seed program. Their intent is to develop Industrial Hemp certified seed, mature plants at or below the 0.3% THC threshold, and move hemp into mainstream agriculture.

“The CDA’s certified seed standards, adopted for Industrial Hemp, are based on national certified seed standards, the same principles as all other agricultural crops, with the only exception being the testing for THC levels,” said Terry Moran, Industrial Hemp Certified Seed Specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Working with seed genetic providers at the Colorado Seed Growers Association, the CDA seed certification program is in accordance with the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies requirements, and analyzed by the Colorado State Seed Laboratory.

AOSCA standards for seeds and plants are: distinct plant characteristics, uniform germination and growth, and stable genetics from generations.

Colorado seed varieties will be grown and tested in the northeast, southeast, Front Range, the San Luis Valley, and on the western slope of Colorado. These five locations vary in altitude, growing season, day and night time temperatures, soil types, among other broad geographical and environmental differences.

“Varieties accepted at all five locations will be allowed to be produced as a class of CDA Approved Certified Seed,” said Moran.

A seed’s genetic owner and provider may participate by submitting two applications (one for review by the CSGA Industrial Hemp Seed Variety Review Committee, and the other for entry into the CDA THC evaluation trials), submitting 5,000 seeds for the broad geographical test, and paying the $1500 trial entry fee, by Friday, April 29th.

“You have to know what you are selling in order to be confident you’ll pass,” said Ben Holmes, seed breeder and founder of Centennial Seeds, who is applying this year to the certified seed program. “As seeds are inbred, chances are the THC tends to rise over time. That’s the feral type. That’s why most the stuff that sits out in the plains, wild stuff, fails because it has become that ‘Type 2’ profile from inbreeding.”

To help start the Certified Seed Program, the CDA has imported Industrial Hemp seed from outside the United States, is isolated-growing it in Colorado by the CSGA, and is developing the seed to enter into the trial program.

Once low-levels of THC are approved, other characteristics of the hemp plant can be recognized. The genetic purities of the seed, same as other regulated crops, also have genetic differences: hemp genetics specific for high CBD, or for strength and length of fiber, or for breeding and as a grain.

“You have to look at the genetics of the variety that you want to grow,” said Rick Novak, Director of Seed Programs at Colorado State University. Growing the most ideal plant is always the goal for any farmer. These days, the question of using genetically modified organisms is always on mind.

“If we were to make an Industrial Hemp plant that has completely eliminated its ability to make THC through a GMO method, it could never possibly be marijuana. Is that a bad thing?” said Grant Orvis, Director of the Hemp Growers Cooperative.

Genetic impurities of the seed are still in danger from out-crossing – impurities from cross-pollination, that may not reveal characteristics until years later. To prevent out-crossing, crop isolation of 3-10 miles from any other hemp variety is desired.

“Hemp has the largest entity for out-crossing,” said Novak. “Which means: pollen is light and can travel far, significant distances.”

Annually purchased CDA Approved Certified Seeds ensures the farmer genetic purity of the seeds, as well as certifies the seeds are free of pests, weeds, and bacteria. “Farmers benefit knowing their crop is in fact Industrial Hemp,” said Moran.

Back in Sterling, now the cool Spring air and the de-thawing bare soil indicates the beginning of planting season. The little black birds sit on a telephone pole nearby. And again Farmer Billings will plant un-certified seed.

“You use some of your own seed to plant, then you don’t have to purchase seed,” said Billings, “A lot of times with the certified seed programs, you can only use the seed for one year, and the farmers have to buy new seed every year.”

It is anticipated CDA Approved Certified Seed will be available for the 2017 planting season. “Research and Development will help create better germplasms and better lines that are more farmer and consumer friendly,” said Novak.

Those interested in participating in the seed certification program should visit the CDA website, complete the CDA and CSGA Variety Submission Applications, and contact Terry Moran, CDA’s Seed Certification Specialist (303)869-9078.

Submissions must be received by Friday, April, 29th, 2016.

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