State sides with Helena hemp farmer who was denied federal water

The Montana Department of Agriculture on Monday refuted a federal decision to deny irrigation water to a Helena Valley hemp farmer, department officials said.

Kim Phillips, the hemp farmer, is in full compliance with state and federal regulations on industrial hemp, and is not in violation of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, according to Cort Jensen, attorney for the state agriculture department.

Phillips was denied access to water by the Helena Valley Irrigation District and Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday because her hemp seedlings are allegedly ineligible for federally controlled water.

Jensen said he was “hopeful” that the issue would be resolved in favor of Phillips through an email sent to the Bureau of Reclamation explaining the recent federal allowances made for industrial hemp.

The Bureau of Reclamation, charged with regulating and distributing water from federal reservoirs, holds a statute banning the use of its water on federally controlled substances, which includes hemp, marijuana and other substances included in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, even if a state has legalized the substance.

The water distributed by the Helena Valley Irrigation District, under contract from the Bureau of Reclamation, comes from Canyon Ferry, a federally controlled reservoir.

Under the 2013 federal Farm Bill, states were allowed to license farmers to grow hemp for research by state agriculture departments and universities. The Montana Industrial Hemp Pilot Program followed these federal regulations, and Phillips was issued a license to grow hemp this year, which will be part of research performed by the Montana Department of Agriculture.

When Phillips offered to truck in well water to maintain her seedlings, she said the irrigation district told her that would also be illegal, but HVID manager Jim Foster said that was a misunderstanding, and that they had no right to tell her what to do with her own water or crop.

Phillips, who was in the process of moving to Montana from Idaho to become a hemp farmer, said she had gone through years navigating state and federal regulations.

“After two years of jumping through hoops and doing everything the right way, I just couldn’t believe water access is the problem,” Phillips said. “I’ll fight the government if I have to, but it certainly isn’t how I wanted to do this.”

Hemp farmers across the state are embarking on the first growing season under Montana’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, and an agriculture department spokesman said there were still kinks being worked out of the new system.