Is Florida poised for a hemp “green rush?”

By: - April 24, 2019 7:00 am

Credit: Getty Images

Jean-Sebastien Gros has been involved in agribusiness for decades, including a long stint farming salmon in the south of Chile. He relocated his agribusiness to Putnam County several years ago to introduce what he calls a “farm-to-fork” culture in his central Florida agriculture community.

Now, Gros’ newfound interest in medical marijuana is evolving into full-fledged evangelism for producing a new cash crop: industrial hemp. And like many farmers in the Sunshine State these days, he’s hoping he can begin planting seeds for the product by the end of this year.

A variety of the cannabis plant, hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years. It can be used for fiber, grain, building materials, paper, animal feed and pain relief as a topical oil – known as CBD.

CBD (an abbreviation for cannabidiol) is the compound in marijuana plants that its advocates say can reduce anxiety, pain and a whole host of other maladies.  By law, hemp extract can’t contain more than 0.3 percent of THC concentration (the principal psychoactive part of cannabis).

State lawmakers are on the verge of passing new legislation to greenlight the Florida Department of Agriculture to start a statewide hemp production program.  Gros says it will become a potential game changer for Florida agriculture, particularly in the Central Florida area where he farms.

“It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take some time,” he said. “It’s all predicated on getting the right genetics, being able to get the right equipment to harvest it, and the right customer relations.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried agrees, saying the crop provides a “tremendous opportunity” for Florida farmers, especially those in the industry who have suffered setbacks in recent years.

A proposal that would a create a state hemp program inside the Department of Agriculture passed its last legislative committee stop last Thursday, and now moves to the full Florida House for a vote. It’s sponsored by state Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Republican from Citrus County.

There are two Senate bills still in circulation. One is a bill that includes hemp packaging and testing requirements. The other is a measure sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley. One key difference between the two is that Bradley’s bill includes a requirement that any farmer growing hemp would have to get a background check every two years, and allow the Department of Agriculture to inspect their operation.

Congress leads, states follow

Congress legalized industrial hemp as an agricultural product in the 2018 federal Farm Bill. That designation stripped its controlled substance classification and authorized states to initiate hemp programs.

And they are.

At least 38 states are considering legislation related to industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just last week, the governors of Kansas and Oklahoma signed legislation establishing guidelines for producing commercial hemp in their states.

Businesses are investing heavily as well. The U.S. hemp market could be worth more than $20 billion by 2022, according to cannabis analytics company Brightfield Group.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida A&M University (FAMU) have been tasked with conducting research into new hemp varieties,  growing systems, and economic models. UF will also study the potential for any hemp variety to become an invasive threat to Florida’s ecology.

UF’s team is conducting research at three sites – in Homestead in South Florida, the city of Hague in central Alachua County, and Quincy in North Florida. It’s being funded to the tune of $1.3 million by Green Roads, a Broward County-based company that’s considered one of the largest producers of CBD products in the country.

Officials with Florida A &M University’s research program recently announced that they are working with three companies – Sunshine Hemp, Green Earth Cannaceuticals and Future Farm Technologies.

Hemp’s story

Hemp came to North America in the early 1600s and was used to make rope, sails and clothing. But domestic production waned after the Civil War, when imports and other domestic materials replaced the product. Hemp was officially banned for use in the U.S. Marijuana Act of 1937.

China has reportedly used the product for thousands of years, but production accelerated in the late 1970s when the country went to war against Vietnam.

“The military needed to develop a fabric that could keep soldiers clean and dry in Vietnam’s humidity, and cannabis hemp offered the fiber that breathed and was antibacterial,” reports the South China Morning Post.

A number of European nations began producing hemp in the 1990s after they lifted production bans.

Nikki Fried was a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney and lobbyist for the medical marijuana industry before she ran for Agriculture Commissioner last year. Her vocal support for medical marijuana and hemp brought her sizable media attention in the relatively low-key race for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, where she narrowly defeated Republican Matt Caldwell last November in a race so close it went into a recount.

Fried’s association with the marijuana industry was considered to be the underlying reason why two different commercial banks terminated her official campaign accounts. Looking for guidance, her campaign reached out to consultant Holly Bell, who knew how to navigate cannabis banking.  That’s when Fried learned more about Bell’s work in Tennessee helping to start that state’s hemp program.

Fried named Bell to serve as Florida’s first director of cannabis, where she’ll be in charge of implementing the hemp program.

A hemp “green rush?”

The Florida agriculture community has been at a crossroads in recent years. A disease called citrus greening is devastating the citrus industry. Florida has been on the losing end of  competition with Mexico on tomato and strawberry crops, and some complain of unfair trade practices. Hurricane Michael devastated Panhandle farming and timber communities.

So how bright is Florida’s future with hemp? That depends on who you listen to.

In a 2018 report, the industrial newsletter Hemp Industry Daily listed the top 15 states that could prosper in the new hemp economy. The Sunshine State failed to make the list, but Fried says she’s fine with that snub.

“I’m okay with being the stealth bomb when it comes to hemp here in Florida,” she says.

Jean-Sebastien Gros was among 10,000 people who recently attended “NoCo 6,” a hemp expo conference in Denver. He came away convinced that Florida can thrive in the market.

“We have something that Colorado and Oregon don’t have, and that’s the weather to be able to grow year-round,” he says. “That’s going to give Florida a really distinct advantage.”

Robert Clayton achieved notoriety in the hemp world when he built the state’s first “hempcrete” home in Tarpon Springs in 2012. Now a hemp consultant, he says the day after a hemp bill passes the Legislature, “you’ll hear a lot of announcements” from entrepreneurs ready to get into hemp to sell CBD products.

Medical marijuana and hemp lobbyist Jeff Sharkey said he recently spoke about the potential for hemp to about a dozen farmers in Hastings, a community near St. Augustine. What he doesn’t want to happen, he told them, is to have 10,000 people applying for permits who don’t know what they’re doing and have crop failures.

“You don’t want to create a recipe for failure,” he says. “The key to that is the Department of Agriculture managing expectations.”

Gros agrees. He says there’s a lot to learn about cultivating the crop in Florida’s tropical climate.

“In Colorado, they cut this stuff down and leave it for two to three weeks. You do that in Florida, you’re going to have mold,” Gros says. “And if you have mold on the product, you don’t have a chance to use it on food or anything pharmaceutical.”

Sharkey says that it’s undeniable that people are finding significant pain relief benefits from CBD.

“There are a number of people that I’ve talked to who say, ‘Oh my God. This really helps me.’ I’m not a zealot, but people are finding significant health benefits from CBD gels, tinctures and creams. It’s remarkable.”

For all the enthusiasm about the healing benefits of CBD, the only condition to date that it has been clinically tested by the Food & Drug Administration is with childhood epilepsy. It’s remarkably effective in curbing seizures.

Fried says CBD can give people a better quality of life, especially for those taking pharmaceutical drugs for various ailments. But she cautions that it needs to happen in a safe and regulated environment.

“The last thing that we need is for people to put something in their bodies that they don’t know what’s in it. Creating regulations for testing and growing standards and labeling requirements is going to be essential moving forward.”

If all goes well, the goal is to have the first hemp plants in the ground by the end of this year.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.