Will hemp help North Florida?

Rick Patrick and Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

It is a crop that has been grown and harvested for nearly
10,000 years. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the crop. That plant is the hemp (Cannabis sativa) plant. Industrial hemp differs from marijuana, based on the level of “THC,” the psychotropic ingredient, present in the plant (less than 0.3 percent per dry weight for industrial hemp). THC levels in marijuana plants are significantly higher than in the industrial hemp plant.
With the passage of the Marihuana [original spelling] Tax Act in 1937, however, attitudes regarding hemp began to change. After the 1937 legislation passed, it became harder for farmers to grow industrial hemp. After the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, industrial hemp was no longer officially recognized as distinct from marijuana. When the Agricultural Improvement Act was passed in 2018, hemp production once again, became federally legal. Some states were quick to take advantage and authorized hemp production quickly, while other states have moved more slowly.
In May of this year, the Florida legislature overwhelmingly passed SB 1020, which authorized the State Hemp Program. The bill was placed on Governor Ron DeSantis' desk on Friday, June 14 and still awaits the Governor's signature – DeSantis has two weeks from June 14 to decide whether to sign it.
While the legislation awaits the governor's signature in order to become law, things are being put into place to help usher in the potential new crop. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has appointed Holly Bell to be the Director of Cannabis, under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Bell recently spoke to the Network of Entrepreneurs and Business Advocates in Tallahassee about the potential of industrial hemp production, especially for North Florida. “North Florida is likely to be very attractive,” said Bell. “Private equity money, venture capital money, this investment money – some of these more rural areas are actually the most attractive to go to. Because you have the land to grow it, you have some facilities sitting empty and you have the employment and workforce to staff your factory.”
According to Bell, once rules are in place and published, expected to be the late fall at the earliest, the Department of Agriculture should be able to begin to implement permits. Once permits are issued, it will take some time before the first crops are expected to be harvested.
Jefferson County Extension Agent Danielle Sprague remains guarded on the prospects of industrial hemp, saying that outside of the research being conducted by the University of Florida, there still is a lot of unknowns when it comes to the agricultural growth of hemp.
“We don't even know what varieties will do well here, what different insects we will have – there's a lot to consider, so we're still trying to figure that out, I think,” said Sprague.
Currently, only a select few researchers have been given permission by the state to grow hemp for research purposes; one such research agency is the University of Florida (UF), who has eight permitted locations where the industrial hemp is being grown, including Quincy, Fla.
Those locations, Sprague says, is where researchers are attempting to obtain more information about how the growth of hemp will impact farmland and farmers across Florida.
“Industrial hemp could be a valuable and impactful alternative crop for Florida,” said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “This research program will partner with industry groups and stakeholders to assess the breakeven point for farmers and the commercialization opportunities for industry.”
“What they are doing now is the invasion risk assessments. That's what they are concerned about – it getting out and becoming a noxious weed,” said Sprague. “I know some people are concerned about.”
Just how profitable industrial hemp farming can be is still open to debate.
In an official statement provided by UF's Tropical Research and Education Center, the college says that “we know very little about how hemp will grow on our agricultural land and in our natural areas and perhaps even less about the economic and environmental impact it will have on our state.”
The research and education center further states that their researchers are allowed to study hemp thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill and a 2017 Florida Statute that established the industrial hemp pilot project that UF/IFAS operates under.
Driving much of the newfound demand for hemp is the demand for Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Whereas the marijuana plant is high in THC, it is relatively low in CBD. The legal, industrial hemp variety of the plant has much higher levels of CBD. CBD can now be found in lotions, skin care products, even in edible gummy candies. There are those who tout is effectiveness as a reliever of everything from anxiety to chronic pain. It is considered a nutritional supplement, therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not verified these claims. The only use approved by the FDA is one drug used for seizures. Aside from that, the FDA has not approved CBD for anything else. Even without FDA verification, there seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to fuel demand for CBD that suppliers continue to struggle to meet. This high demand continues to boost the price, and profits, associated with industrial hemp production.
There are still many questions yet to be answered when it comes to producing the industrial hemp plant and avoiding the marijuana plant. Too much heat will cause the plant to increase THC and become the illegal marijuana variety. Other factors are still being researched by UF.
Rural counties of North Florida are ready for an economic shot in the arm. Will industrial hemp production and the related production of CBD provide that shot? That is still anyone's guess. “Unfortunately, there's a lot we don't know about it right now, it's really hard to say,” said Sprague.