More than 50 people gathered this week to hear about the future of industrial hemp growing.
Putnam County Commissioner Larry Harvey and two commissioners from neighboring counties hosted the meeting, which took place Monday at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science in East Palatka.
People interested in growing or processing hemp as well as the manufacturing or distribution of hemp-based products met with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection’s Director of Cannabis, Holly Bell, to learn how recent changes in the law will allow them to produce this potentially lucrative cash crop.
“Every now and then in rural communities, we have a golden opportunity to make a difference for ourselves economically and financially,” said Rep. Bobby Payne, R–Palatka. “I feel like this one of those opportunities.”
Recent changes in federal and state laws mean Florida will be joining other states in the nation growing hemp after decades of the plant being illegal, Bell said.
Hemp is a fibrous, fast-growing and hearty plant that is in the same family as cannabis sativa, the plant that contains THC — the active ingredient in marijuana. Unlike cannabis, industrial hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC, making it useless as a drug.
Hemp is useful for a number of other purposes, Bell said, pointing to its use in South Florida in home construction and a Jacksonville entrepreneur who sells hemp towels to hotel chains trying to reduce their environmental footprints.
“The immediate demand is for CBD,” Bell said, adding that in other parts of the country, most growers are cultivating the smaller, flowering plants that produce CBD.
CBD is a substance found in some hemp plants and is used for medical reasons, as well as cosmetics and other body care products.
But current demand is not a bubble or a result of decades of pent-up demand following prohibition, Bell said.
“There are over 25,000 known uses for this plant,” Bell told the audience. “It’s got a long tail.”
Putnam County Commissioner Buddy Goddard said it may be worth looking into the past to see the potential benefits Putnam farmers could now glean.
“It used to be a major product back in the 1800s,” Goddard said. “I see it coming back. I see it as a good product.”
Bell said the state Department of Agriculture is working toward finalizing rules for licensing hemp growers and regulating the product.
Much of that work is with scientists at the University of Florida who are working to isolate strains of the plant that don’t contain THC and will thrive in Florida’s hot climate, she said.
The agency is also preparing to manage growing permits.
To get a permit, a grower must submit his or her name, address and the GPS coordinates of where hemp will be grown, Bell said. Growers must also agree to allow inspectors on the property and must notify the Department of Agriculture 30 days before their plants are harvested.
Growers must also post bond or have insurance on their crop, submit fingerprints and pass a criminal background check. Being convicted of a drug-related felony will preclude anyone from obtaining an industrial hemp grower’s license, Bell said.
For CBD growing, the cost per acre is between $15,000 and $25,000, Bell said. Estimated profit for the product is about the same per acre, she added.
Bell said while CBD is the current hemp product with the most demand, demand could shift to other products. But for now, demand for those is mostly overseas.
“I’ve talked to some people in counties where they have empty plants,” Bell said. “What if I could get someone to come down and refurbish that plant into a hemp wood plant? The labor is here; we need the jobs.”
Hemp wood and hempcrete — a concrete-like material used in construction and insulation — would be a boon to the construction industry, Florida’s third-largest industry, Bell said. Hempcrete has already been used in construction projects near Tampa, she added.
Hemp’s use as a fiber in clothing and other items could also mean a resurgence in American textile mills, she said.
The Jacksonville entrepreneur selling hemp towels to hotel chains is manufacturing in China, Bell said, since that country has been manufacturing hemp products for years. But Bell said she hopes growing hemp in Florida could mean a resurgence in American manufacturing.