Does Florida hemp experience raise caution flags for NC?

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[Editor’s note: As more and more states embrace the idea that hemp could be a financial boon for farmers and entrepreneurs, news from Florida appears to raise some caution flags. The following story from journalist Laura Cassels of the Florida Phoenix reports that the hemp forecast — at least for the sunshine state — appears to have turned cloudy.]

Hemp hype? Some observers fear Florida is setting up small farmers for failure

Hemp — the hip, new superstar of the agriculture world — is getting a lot of buzz within farming and political circles in Florida and nationally. But hemp harvests this fall aren’t matching the hype, portending disaster for small growers while manufacturers and retailers stand to get rich.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has been particularly active in promoting hemp as an alternative for farmers in the Panhandle who suffered devastating crop losses during Hurricane Michael one year ago.

Experience in other states raises questions about whether farmers would be wise to bet the farm on hemp absent more work toward developing production chains and best practices for this crop.

Fried is aware of the risks. “She’s made it a top priority to align all the moving parts to ensure Florida’s hemp program becomes the nation’s best,” said Karol Molinares, the commissioner’s deputy communications director, in a written response to questions raised by the Florida Phoenix.

“There aren’t yet issues here with glut, shortage of contracts, or processing bottlenecks. These types of issues would exist with any newly developing industry. Hemp presents an extraordinary economic opportunity for the farmers you mentioned, who have asked for access to alternative crops like hemp,” she added.

“The department is continuing efforts to establish processing, manufacturing, and retailing capacity, concurrent with cultivation, testing, and other issues,” Molinares said. She supplied no details beyond noting Fried’s hiring of Holly Bell, a former financial adviser to cannabis companies, to lead the hemp program. Neither Fried nor Bell were available for comment.

Meanwhile, Jerry Fankhauser, logistics coordinator for the University of Florida IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project — one of two university-based programs working on the problem — voiced cautious optimism.

“Everyone I see tells me that all the potential growers are doing their homework,” Fankhauser said. But if you can’t tolerate risk, he said, “don’t plant more acres than you can stand to lose.”

The Florida legislature authorized the hemp pilot project at the University of Florida and another at Florida A&M University in 2017. The state is expected to begin issuing hemp cultivation permits in 2020. Following nationwide legalization of hemp in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, Florida authorized hemp farming in the Sunshine State earlier this year. Fried’s agency is developing rules for the program and plans to seek federal approval this fall. Public hearings on the draft rules are set for Friday in Tallahassee and Monday, Oct. 21, in Tampa. The public comment period ends on Oct. 31.

‘At risk of being wasted’

To understand the potential pitfalls, consider Pennsylvania, where hemp is widely cultivated but half of that state’s crop has no buyers and may go to waste, according to Pennsylvania State University’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center, which monitors that state’s hemp growers.

That includes 75 percent of the hemp grown for CBD oil, the non-psychoactive compound derived from hemp and sometimes used in medical applications. The risk is lower for hemp grown for fiber and grain.

Even in North Carolina, no stranger to growing leafy crops, just half of the hemp farmers are under purchase contracts, and about half the crop is expected to be stored at great expense because it can’t be sold this season, according to a Southeast harvest preview published on Oct. 11 by Hemp Industry Daily, a trade magazine. Read more