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Harlow Tighe and Matt O'Brien planted hemp on a timberland farm in Fairfield County after receiving one of 20 first-year permits to grow it in South Carolina. South Carolina lawmakers want to lift the cap on how many farmers can grow the crop. File/Staff

COLUMBIA — The S.C. House passed a bill Thursday removing the cap on how many farmers can grow hemp in the Palmetto State, opening the door to the possibility of hundreds of growers harvesting the crop.

The bill still needs to pass the Senate, but the legislation has lawmakers and agriculture officials hopeful that additional hemp production will give farmers in South Carolina a new cash crop.

"I've heard from farmers all over the state of South Carolina who are getting their fields ready to plant," said Rep. David Hiott, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from Pickens. 

In recent years, state lawmakers allowed a limited number of farmers to try their hand at hemp cultivation. They issued roughly 60 permits over a two-year period to a select group of farmers, but turned away more than a hundred others that wanted to get into the business. 

Those restrictions will end if the law gets passed this year. Farmers will still need to apply for a permit with the S.C. Department of Agriculture. But the state won't cap the number of permits available or limit the number of acres that can be planted with hemp.

The change was spurred by the federal farm bill that passed Congress last year. That legislation removed hemp from the federal government's list of controlled substances. 

State Agriculture Secretary Hugh Weathers and his team are responsible for submitting a plan to the federal government explaining how the state will regulate hemp growers. Weathers is also mapping out a plan for how the state can take advantage of the crop, which is used to produce cannabis oil, hemp ropes and other materials. 

The immediate need, Weathers said, is to get more hemp processing companies to locate in South Carolina so that farmers have somewhere to send their crop after its harvested. 

The state also needs to be considering how to create new products and markets for hemp, Weathers said. It is already being used to build parts for the doors on BMW cars, and Weathers wants to take advantage of its potential in other manufacturing settings. 

Last week, Weathers met with state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt to discuss how they could incentivize research and development. This week he spoke with Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, about how to engage the state's biggest manufacturers in the search for new markets for the crop. 

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"We want to develop this industry and take advantage of the manufacturing that we have here to make sure that our farmers can grow products that might be put in a BMW or Volvo vehicle or a Boeing aircraft," Weathers said. "Let's develop the supply chain here." 

The state hasn't conducted a study to determine the economic impact of increased hemp cultivation. But researchers at Clemson University are studying the best conditions for growing hemp and the best ways to turn the crop into a money-maker for farmers, Hiott said.  

Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat from St. Matthews and a farmer himself, said he's hopeful the crop can thrive in South Carolina. 

"I think you will see a lot of spin-off businesses," Ott said. "But that doesn't mean that people will be able to make a lot of money off of hemp. That's to be determined." 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.