COLUMBIA — In just its second year growing hemp, South Carolina is projecting a 1,200% increase in acres of what many are hailing as the next big cash crop.
This heightened rate of growth is common around the country as states scramble for a piece of the budding market. Though the Palmetto State is years behind the regional hemp powerhouse of Kentucky, growers here now see opportunity to come into their own and catch up with neighboring states following law changes this spring.
“I think we’re in a really good position right now to be a solid hemp state,” said Vanessa Elsalah, hemp program coordinator for the state Agriculture Department.
South Carolina has 113 permitted growers this year planning to plant about 3,300 acres total, Elsalah said, though the department did not provide the field locations and actual acres planted may change. This is up from 20 growers and 256 acres last year.
City Roots, a Columbia urban farm known for its organic greens, planted 80 acres of hemp in Columbia this year and plans to plant another 120 acres south of Charleston by the end of the month, said Eric McClam. And he does not expect excitement around the new crop to subside.
“We will increase acreage again next year,” he said, having joined forces with another grower and processor, Brackish Solutions.
With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, limits on hemp cultivation and the plant's status as a Schedule 1 drug were lifted at the federal level. Brackish founder Jason Eargle was among those pushing expansion of the state’s program in response.
“We’ll get left behind if we don't open this up to more people,” Eargle said. “If federal law allows it, why should we cap it? We wanted to not hold back our state from competing.”
In the region, Kentucky's hemp industry is about five years ahead of South Carolina and grew 6,700 acres last year. The Bluegrass State is now up to 1,035 approved growers.
North Carolina has one year on the Palmetto State, having grown 965 acres in 2017 and 3,184 acres in 2018. And Tennessee has 2,600 farmers licensed to grow this year. Last year, 226 farmers grew a combined 4,700 acres in the Volunteer State.
South Carolina farmers first planted hemp in 2018, when 20 permits were issued by the Agriculture Department and 256 acres were grown. The program was set to double in 2019 when a new law signed in March removed any limits. The agency then opened up planting to all who had applied earlier in the year.
The agriculture department's hemp division fields multiple calls daily from potential new growers hoping to plant in 2020.
"Since that law has been passed, (state Agriculture Department officials) are really jumping in head first," Eargle said. "If they keep doing that, I think we will very quickly catch up with and surpass our neighbors."
Much of the current demand can be attributed to CBD oil.
CBD is not marijuana. It comes from the hemp plant, a member of the Cannabis genus that, unlike its sister, contains a small amount of THC and doesn’t leave a user feeling high.
Another indicator of future interest was the S.C. Hemp Summit held May 17 in Orangeburg County. The event drew 253 people, including many local farmers, said Reyne Moore, Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce president. It focused on teaching successful growing techniques. Moore said about 70 percent of attendees, if not already growing hemp, were wanting to.
Next year, the event will be replicated across the state in the Upstate, Lowcountry, Midlands and Pee Dee, said Lucas Snyder, South Carolina Hemp Farmers Association executive director.
While permits won’t be limited in the state next year, growers still must pass background checks and provide mapping coordinates of their hemp fields for licensing. Processors must be licensed through the state Agriculture Department as well.
City Roots and Brackish have their own hemp processing facility in North Carolina and one in the works in South Carolina, which McClam said will process 3,000 pounds of hemp daily come harvest time.
Elsalah described 2019 as a “transitional” year for South Carolina's hemp industry. By next year she would like to have a “full-fledged” hemp division at the agriculture department.
"The market is exponentially increasing around this plant," said Eargle, who hopes to see it expand into the textile and biofuel industries.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story used the wrong title for Vanessa Elsalah, Hemp Program Coordinator.