Hurdles still remain for rooting North Florida's hemp industry
But the plant could be revolutionary for the state’s economy.
The first year of Florida’s hemp industry was one of trial and error on the ground, but the projections that it will become a green boom could mean a shift in the Panhandle’s agricultural scene.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the first eight months of cultivation since the state developed its program is only expected to get larger heading into 2021.
This year, the state approved 22,000 acres for hemp – the same acreage as tomatoes, watermelon and snap peas, and double the production of strawberries – but in the next 3-5 years it could balloon to 300,000 acres, or half of the land used to grow Florida citrus.
With tourism down in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and agricultural losses projected at $500 million, hemp could be revolutionary for the state’s economy.
That's coming as "our economy needs it most, due to COVID-19,” she said during a meeting of Enterprise Florida in early December.
“We are on the verge of a green industrial revolution here in the state of Florida with potential of billions of dollars in economic impact, tens of thousands of new jobs and potential new products in the marketplace,” she added.
Estimates put the total economic output in the first year somewhere around $500 million and more than $17 million in tax revenue.
Fried said hemp is being used in roads and houses are being built already using "hempcrete." It's an alternative to plastics and is used in the health and wellness industries.
With the going price for harvested hemp projected to be around $5,250 per acre, Fried said she expected acreage and sales to continue to grow.
North Florida is uniquely positioned to become a hemp fiber mecca with eager farmers and plenty of agricultural land. The more than a dozen counties in the region, from Levy to Gulf counties, represent roughly 2,125 acres in cultivation permits issued by the state.
Hemp has become a top-of-the-funnel issue for the Apalachee Regional Planning Council (ARPC), which is eying it as a possible way for silviculture, or tree farmers, to rebound from the devastation that leveled thousands of acres of pine trees and to attract a new industry.
ARPC represents nine counties from Jefferson west to Gulf County.
Jackson County Commission Chairman and ARPC executive committee treasurer Jim Peacock said there is a lot of interest in hemp as a rotational crop in his part of the state, about an hour west of Tallahassee.
As much as 68 percent of the economy in that rural county is rooted in agriculture with most farmers growing peanuts, cotton, soybeans and corn. But the return on investment leaves farmers working harder to make their crops earn money.
“If we can come up with a crop that is profitable for them in their rotation, it would be a great thing and keep the farmer going,” Peacock said. “If they can make $1,000 an acre (in a harvest), they would be happy. They have to work hard to get close to that with peanuts and cotton.”
Peacock said the county is open to offering free land to a processor, a handful of which have already approached the county about locating there – noting that the state transferred the Dozier School property over to the county in 2018 – but until planting starts and a processor arrives, the hemp industry may not take off.
He said there are a lot of farmers lined up ready to start planting but there is some hesitancy because of two issues:
- A requirement that the plants test lower than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive chemical that produces a high in hemp’s cousin marijuana, or be destroyed.
- The lack of a nearby processing facility where the fibers can be made into industrial products.
He proposed some mechanism that would funnel hemp that tests above the regulation to go to industrial uses instead of to consumers in the form of CBD products.
“We’ve got the land; we’ve got people that could plant 1,000 acres, but they don’t want to put the money and time into it until we get the issue of THC resolved,” Peacock said.
He added: “I don’t see why you couldn’t do it because who is going to eat a concrete block?” referring to hempcrete.
Jeff Sharkey, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist and executive director of the Florida Hemp Association, said there was an oversaturation in the national hemp market in 2019 after Congress decriminalized hemp the previous year.
Sharkey was an organizer of the 850 Hemp Summit last year that looked to plot a path forward for the industry in North Florida.
Now that the market has somewhat stabilized, the push this year was to find strains that grew well in Florida and remained below the THC limits so they would be appealing to growers and their investment in a crop.
It caused some farmers not to plant out the full acreage they were approved for.
“Most people said, 'let me test this out. I’ve got a permit for 10 acres but I’m only going to grow an acre or two and see how it goes,' which is smart,” he said. “That was part of the message from the 850 Summit: This is new, it’s going to take a while to grow and mature.”
With the industry's boom, Sharkey said, came a number of out-of-state seed brokers who provided little oversight and falsely claimed their seeds were certified by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies, which certifies agricultural seeds of all types.
Both Florida A&M University and the University of Florida have launched seed genetics programs where they look to find the right strains for the Sunshine State that are resistant to pests and enjoy the sandy soil.
That includes a focus on getting a certifiable seed stock, part of a push from state lawmakers like former Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, who worked through the rulemaking process.
“There’s been a lot of disappointing results from seeds,” Sharkey said. “Out of 24 seeds grown with FAMU, only four were approved.”
Seeds go for about $1 a piece and the hope is that more people will look to hemp for fiber instead of just the CBD market, where the perception is that there is a huge demand. Currently, no one in Florida is growing hemp for fiber, Sharkey said.
“The process for taking hemp fiber is very different and expensive and the extraction processing technology is hard to come by,” he said. “That is where a lot of people believe Florida’s competitive edge may be: growing for fiber.”
A virtual conference is planned for February to recount the first year of Florida’s hemp market and plan for the future.
Incoming ARPC Chairwoman and Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier said the North Florida industrial hemp market did not get the traction in 2020 anticipated during the 850 Hemp Summit last year.
The hesitancy of insurance and banking markets to get involved with hemp or back hemp farmers, a residual connection to marijuana remaining a scheduled drug at the federal level, remain hurdles to be overcome.
But with more focus on the industry in Florida, this may be the year when all the pieces come together, she said.
The major issue is attracting a processor and finding out what markets exist to make it viable for local farmers to grow and sell.
“Even without COVID, this would have been a year of learning and continued research on what types of seeds would grow in our region and some of these other regulatory issues that pose an issue for our farmers,” she said.
“The response from people throughout North Florida was incredible and we want to keep our focus on this issue. It is an industry that can work well in North Florida with our existing agriculture and existing communities.”
The 2021 Florida Virtual Hemp Conference will be held Monday, Feb. 22.
Contact Karl Etters at firstname.lastname@example.org or @KarlEtters on Twitter.