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House Agriculture Committee Examines Harvey Impact & Possible Hemp Legalization

Ryan Poppe
Texas Public Radio

The Texas House Committee on Agriculture and Livestock received updates on the lingering agricultural and ecological impact of Hurricane Harvey, and heard about possible changes to the Texas agricultural industry.

Harvey's Agricultural Impact

Industry experts analyzing the hurricane's agricultural damage said the storm dumped more than 27 trillion gallons of rain on parts of Texas, causing major losses for farmers and ranchers.

Jason Fearneyhough, deputy commissioner with the Texas Department of Agriculture, said the storm wiped out a large amounts of cotton and rice, and the storm's floodwaters displaced livestock.

“Hurricane Harvey caused more than $200 million in crop and livestock losses, with $93 million of that coming in livestock and $100 million in cotton,” Ferneyhough said.

Preserving Texas Deer Population

The legislators heard a proposal that would allow “high-fence” genetically-enhanced deer breeders to relocate their deer before a natural disaster like Harvey.

In 2015, some of the enhanced deer were found infected with Chronic Wasting Disease, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department contained them and restricted their movement to keep the disease from spreading to the wild deer population. And then Harvey hit.

Patrick Tarleton, the executive director for the Texas Deer Association, said “we lost a lot of animals by not transferring them out in a timely manner."

"I can tell you there’s one ranch down near El Campo," he said, "they have 600 animals in it, and they lost about 375 of them."

Tarleton asked TPWD, the Texas Animal Health Commission and state lawmakers to work with his organization to develop emergency rules to allow deer breeders to move their livestock to a safer facility before a hurricane strikes.

Tarleton said the deer breeding industry adds more than $1.6 billion dollars to the Texas economy.

Reclassifying Hemp

The committee also heard about the possible reclassification of hemp in the state's agricultural industry.

Hemp is very similar in appearance to marijuana but is generally grown outdoors, and contains low levels of the psychoactive chemical THC.

Its byproducts have been used to create products ranging from an alternative to plastic to cosmetics and natural supplements.

“It’s become almost a billion-dollar industry in the United States, unfortunately though, all of that hemp was being imported,” said Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the advocacy group, the United States Hemp Roundtable.

But Miller said the Hemp Farming Act, by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, would change that and allow farmers to grow hemp as an agricultural product.

“Take a look at that bill. See how it defines hemp. It defines it in a way that makes sure that all popular hemp products can be sold as opposed to making this a federally regulated drug. What this bill does is it puts the power into the state,” Miller said.

Both Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party include the legalization of hemp for agricultural purposes in their parties' platforms.

Ryan Poppe can be reached at rpoppe@tpr.org or on Twitter @RyanPoppe1

Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.