University explores industrial hemp farming.
Researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) received approval from the UF Board of Trustees to develop hemp management and cropping systems that could be economically viable for the state.
Industrial hemp is a Cannabis sativa plant that has been cultivated for 10,000 years as a fiber and grain crop. Industrial hemp may have applications for fiber, building materials, forages and pain relief as a topical oil. It is not marijuana as it contains THC less than 0.3 percent per dry weight. THC is the psychoactive chemical that at higher levels defines marijuana.
Florida is late to the game, but has an edge
More than 30 states presently have industrial hemp projects; however, Florida has a comparative advantage in growing season and markets.
“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.”
To support the future viability and sustainability of an industrial hemp industry, preliminary assessment of the crop and cropping systems must be established prior to commercialization. The program will look to identify productive hemp varieties that can withstand environmental, ecological and economic threats.
Researchers will also study the risk of any hemp plants becoming invasive threats to Florida’s environment.
Hemp’s history mired in bureaucracy
Hemp has been grown around the world for 10,000 years and can be used for textiles, food and cattle feed, according to the University of Florida. But federal law didn’t differentiate between hemp, which can not get a person high, with marijuana, which contains THC, the chemical credited for causing the marijuana high. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis — including hemp — as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow it in the United States. The tide started to turn with the Agricultural Act of 2014 made it possible for university research on hemp, a Cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3 percent of THC, to be regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Agricultural Act of 2014 opened the door for UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to get involved.
“You didn’t see any hemp in the field in the last 60, 70 years in this country and that creates a void in the knowledge base on this particular plant, which is very diverse in the products you can derive from it,” said Jerry Fankhauser, assistant director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. “We are all trying to play catch up.”
Fankhauser is involved with the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project that is gearing up to start planting different strains of hemp seeds this spring at various sites around the state including near Tallahassee, Gainesville and Homestead. The goals of the project, Fankhauser said, are to find out which hemp varieties can grow in the diverse Florida climate, to understand cropping systems and to look at the invasiveness of the plant.
“Hemp is considered at least moderately invasive,” Fankhauser said. “I grew up in Northern Indiana and 60-70 years after the last hemp field was produced, you can still find ditch weed in some of the ditches up there.”
Farmers see potential “perfect alternative” crop
There are also questions about how the hemp will react to Florida heat. In some cases, Fankhauser said, THC levels have been known to spike when hemp is put under the stress like heat or drought.
Danny Johns, a third generation potato farmer and the owner of Blue Sky Farm, has never been afraid to experiment on his Hastings, FL, farm since it opened more than 30 years ago. Like many other farmers in Florida, he’s now looking at possibly growing industrial hemp on his more than 500 acres.
“You always have to keep an eye on what is the next crop,” Johns said. “I think there is a lot of potential opportunity with hemp.”
Johns said hemp could potentially be the perfect alternative cash crop to plant during the summer months when it’s difficult to grow anything in the scorching Florida sun. But as things stand currently, it is illegal for farmers in Florida like Johns to grow industrial hemp.
“If it spikes too high, the state can come in and destroy your crop,” Johns said.
Johns said some of the benefits of hemp are that it doesn’t require a lot of water or fertilizer, but there are also potential concerns about the mold and mildew during the wet months.
There is also a big upside. Johns sees the emerging demand for cannabidiol, a byproduct of hemp more commonly known as CBD, as a chance to make a profit during the typically slow time of the year. CBD, which is marketed for its healing properties, was a $591 million industry in 2018 and is expected to grow to $22 billion by 2022, according to market analysis by Brightfield.
The 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Donald Trump should eventually make it even easier to grow hemp more broadly by reclassifying hemp as an agricultural commodity so it’s no longer a Schedule I controlled drug as it was before.
“Growers are excited because hemp will be able to be grown, but not yet because the new rules have not trickled down to the states,” Fankhauser said. That makes the work of UF all that more important for Florida farmers waiting for the green light.
Fankhauser said the UF team, which is working on a two-year pilot program, will begin planting seeds as early as April and he hopes to have something to report to lawmakers, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Holly Bell, the state’s first cannabis czar, by next year. There is also the potential to move hemp experiments to the UF/IFAS extension center in Hastings in 2020.
“We just want to get out there as soon as we can and do the good science so we better understand the potential of industrial hemp,” Fankhauser said.