By Theresa Opeka
Hemp growers and retailers in North Carolina may be helped by a provision in a Senate bill that was discussed in Senate’s Agriculture, Energy, and Environment Senate Standing Committee meeting Tuesday.
S.B. 762, the North Carolina Farm Act of 2022 conforms to federal law regarding hemp and takes it off the State Controlled Substances Act. Doing so allows for the legal selling and transporting of the substance and spells out the differences between hemp and marijuana.
“What we are doing is saving an industry that has spent millions upon millions of dollars already,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, one of the primary co-sponsors of the bill, during the meeting. “If we don’t conform to federal law and come up with anything different, these folks are going to have issues anywhere from Florida to Maine to California to North Carolina. Because if they enter North Carolina, if we don’t conform to federal law, they are going to be outlawed. They will be illegally transporting, and if we don’t conform to federal law, our retailers will be illegally selling products and our growers will, for the most part, be illegal and wipe out this industry.”
The move comes close to the approaching June 30 expiration date of the state’s law that allows farmers to grow hemp on a temporary basis.
Norman Sanderson, R-Craven; and Mike Woodard, D-Durham, are also primary co-sponsors of the bill.
Another controversial portion of the farm bill was discussed during the committee meeting as well. The Agricultural Right to Repair Act would allow farmers to alter the way they fix machinery. It drew an outcry from various equipment dealers across the state, saying it would hurt, not help, their industry, as well as farmers themselves.
Lawmakers faced opposition from farm-equipment manufacturing groups after similar language was included in the 2019 farm bill, which lead to the removal of the language from the bill for further study.
The first provision would stop the sale of parts to independent shops. Farmers would have to get them directly from dealers. Jackson said the language was left out unintentionally.
The second provision would allow any of the following: any modification that permanently deactivates a safety-notification system with electronics enabled implement of agriculture is being repaired; any modification of the horsepower or other engine faction of the electronics enabled implement of agriculture through modification of embedded software (programmable); access to any faction of a tool that enables the owner or independent repair provider to change the settings of an electronics-enabled implement of agriculture so as to bring the equipment permanently out of compliance with any applicable safety or emission laws.
Dealers overwhelmingly spoke out against the second amendment of the bill. They said the language was too broad. It would also hurt their businesses as they spend millions on parts each year and employ hundreds of people. In addition, it would create liabilities for them, as well as farmers, as any change would make the equipment unsafe. They said customers have access to parts now, and manuals are already online. They also stressed that emissions issues would violate the Clean Air Act.
Matthew Lyles, vice-president of Southeast Farm Equipment, of Laurinburg, North Carolina, told lawmakers this part of the farm bill was not needed. His company is a John Deere dealer and employs 100 people across six locations.
“If we allow customers or technicians at dealerships to modify the embedded software and programming of this equipment, it will lead to many other problems and safety hazards. Even if you have the software, you have to know what to do with it.”
Other problems Lyles pointed to include integrity issues for the second or third owners of the equipment, emission issues that violate the Clean Air Act, and resale concerns. He concluded by saying that if the OEM part of the bill is left in it, every dealer would be crippled.
Josh Evans, vice president of government relations and general counsel for the Equipment Dealers Association, told lawmakers they oppose this bill. The association represents over 2,000 equipment dealers across the U.S. and Canada and the 300,000 employees that work for them.
“Last year alone, over 20 states considered this legislation,” he said. “All 20 of them rejected it because this legislation allows for the illegal tampering and modification of equipment. It hurts the farmer, not helps them. It moves and changes a valuable resource and partner, the equipment dealer, and takes that away from the farmer.”
But David Daniels, an independent repair shop owner, Nash County, told the committee more flexibility in repairing equipment would help farmers.
“I see struggles every day with the farmers who need help with their tractors breaking down in the middle of the road or the middle of the field, and they don’t have the diagnostic software to read the codes, and it will reset, go into idle, and they will have to wait for a repair person to come,” said Daniels.
He also said there is no way to change horsepower on equipment because companies like John Deere do it themselves or other companies like Case New Holland have protected passwords.
“I am here for the farmers,” Daniels said. “We need to make this legal so all independent shops can buy this.”
Stacy Sereno, state legislative director and legislative counsel for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, also spoke in favor of the bill’s Right to Repair Act portion.
Jackson said he was prepared to go with an alternative provision after hearing all of the comments and turn the Right to Repair Act into a study and send it to the Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission, made up of members of the General Assembly and the public. He said they would also hold three or four town hall meetings across the state so farmers could attend.