Some Baltimore County residents have complained for months of an overpowering stench coming from an industrial hemp farm. They said the odor would cling to their clothes, cause headaches and drift through open windows.

The farm, tucked off Broadway Road between Greenspring Avenue and Falls Road, reeked from late July or early August and until early November, when the plant was harvested, and now nearby residents say they’re worried about the next growing season.

Besides the smell, several neighbors said they worry about the possible health effects of inhaling the fumes from hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant, but without the active ingredient of marijuana, that can be used in an array of commercial products, including clothing fibers and CBD oil.

The neighbors, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were not opposed to industrial hemp. Rather, the group wants the county or the state to impose restrictions that would prohibit industrial hemp farming within 2 miles of a residential area. The Broadway farm is surrounded by suburban homes, just north of Stevenson, between Lutherville-Timonium and Owings Mills.

The odor is “kind of a skunky marijuana smell,” said Mark Holland, a professor of biological sciences at Salisbury University.

Holland and a colleague have partnered with more than 20 farms across the state to grow industrial hemp — growers during the pilot program needed to link with a university conducting research in order to qualify to grow the crop.

“[Hemp] has a distinctive odor,” Holland said. “So does chicken manure on the Eastern Shore, by the way.”

Vincent Piccinini, the farmer whose name is listed on the state registration for the Broadway hemp farm, declined to comment for this article. The property is identified as a landscaping company, and the address is registered in Maryland as being a plant nursery.

The group of neighbors took its concerns to county and state officials, and Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat who represents District 11, which includes the farm, recently introduced legislation to establish a 2-mile buffer between hemp farms and residential areas with more than 10 homes.

“I think some sort of accommodation to address the unintended consequences of our earlier action is warranted,” said Hettleman, who voted to legalize industrial hemp farming in Maryland in 2018.

Hemp farms participating in the pilot program cropped up across the state last year. Among the state’s 67 farms that grew hemp were three in Baltimore County, two in Anne Arundel County, three in Carroll County, two in Harford County and one in Howard County, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Maryland is not the only state confronting how to regulate the fledgling industry. Elsewhere, a number of cities in Ventura County, California, have banned hemp growing, in part to limit exposure to odors, and residents in New York have raised concerns about hemp growing.

Industrial hemp industry

Industrial hemp production had been prohibited until federal and state action in recent years because of its relationship to marijuana, a drug that remains illegal at the federal level and in many states.

The 2014 Federal Farm Bill allowed for the legal growth of industrial hemp as part of agricultural research pilot programs, and the Maryland legislature passed a bill in 2018 establishing a state-level pilot program under the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Under the state law, industrial hemp in Maryland can be grown or cultivated only on a site that is registered by a college or university, or by a person partnering with an institution of higher learning to do research.

Industrial hemp can be used to produce fibers for clothing and plastic-like auto parts. Its oils can yield food and medicine, and its seeds can be crushed and used as meal. It also can be used to produce cannabidiol, or CBD, which many believe has health and wellness benefits such as easing anxiety and insomnia.

Maryland law required the crop to contain less that 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. If industrial hemp is found to contain more than 0.3%, it must be destroyed.

The economic benefit industrial hemp offers Maryland is hard to gauge because the industry is so young, said Kevin Atticks of the Maryland Hemp Coalition.

“We’re really in the research and development phase, where growers are trying to hit their niche … and figure out what it is they’re going to do to get an edge in what will inevitably be a competitive marketplace,” Atticks said.

But what’s next for the fledgling industry remains unclear. Under the state’s pilot program, growers must apply again for the 2020 season.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed regulations for industrial hemp that some growers worry are so stringent they could snuff out their crops.

The state and federal regulations limit what local lawmakers can do to regulate the industry.

While Baltimore County has three farms, only the one at 1810 Broadway Road is surrounded by homes. The other two, at 15906 Falls Road in Sparks Glencoe and 19718 Kirkwood Road in White Hall, are in more rural settings with far fewer residences nearby.

According to its registration with the state agriculture department, the Broadway farm planned to grow hemp on a 2-acre field and in an additional 10,000 square feet in a greenhouse. The farm partnered with Salisbury University, as required under the pilot program, to research how hemp responds to certain probiotic bacteria and study industrial hemp’s return on investment compared with “standard row crops” and yield capabilities in the region.

Unintended consequences

Neighbors say the Broadway farm’s odor is their primary concern. They are speaking out because they don’t want industrial hemp farms to pop up in other residential areas.

County Councilman Izzy Patoka, whose district includes the farm, has visited the community and attended a few contentious community meetings about the crop. He said he noticed a smell but that it was not “intense.”

“If I had a magic wand, it would be to create some level of separation, perhaps extending a space between ... where we have residents and where we have farming,” Patoka said.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25 on Hettleman’s bill, which would prohibit the state from registering a farm to grow industrial hemp if it is within 2 miles of a residential community with 10 or more residences. Hettleman said the bill is intended to mean a “cluster” or neighborhood of 10 or more homes, and that she would be open to clarifying the language in the legislation.

When she voted in favor of legalizing industrial hemp farming in Maryland in 2018, Hettleman said she did not anticipate the quality-of-life impact on residents.

“I certainly did not know that when you harvest, when hemp is being harvested, or when it gets to its harvesting time, it emits a very strong odor,” she said.

Hettleman said she had no interest in banning hemp farming as some communities around the country have done.

“But I do think there is a delicate balance between the rights of farmers and the rights of homeowners who live around those farms,” Hettleman said.

The neighbors surrounding the Broadway farm said they would be satisfied with a 2-mile buffer from residential areas for industrial hemp farming, which would ban it from near their homes.

Atticks, of the Maryland Hemp Coalition, said it would be hard for him to comment on any rules that could potentially restrict hemp production without seeing a formal proposal. But, he said, it’s difficult to solve neighborhood concerns with a statewide statute.

“Maryland has a strong history and culture of a right to farm,” he added. “When you start talking about buffers, using the 2-mile number, that would create quite a precedent.”

Holland, the Salisbury professor, said it was unlikely there was any farm in Maryland that was 2 miles away from any residential property.

“It seems like something that needs to be worked out between neighbors and the growers,” Holland said. “I don’t see how the state can legislate buffer zones of miles ... and have a successful crop grown in the state.”

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©2020 Towson Times (Towson, Md.)

Visit Towson Times (Towson, Md.) at www.baltimoresun.com/explore/baltimorecounty/publications/towson-times

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