Fields of pointy green leaves gently stir in the hot South Carolina breeze, soaking up the sun’s rays that will further spur the growth of this crop that hasn’t been able to be legally grown in-state since the early 20th century.
Nat Bradford, a seasoned farmer known for his heirloom watermelons, is one of 20 farmers in the inaugural run of the state’s Hemp Pilot Program. At his Sumter property he is growing 20 acres of hemp that will be ready to harvest in September.
The excitement in his voice belies the fact that this is pretty much just a really cool farming experiment to him more than a potential moneymaker.
“We divided nine small plots with three different varieties of hemp, and one has stood out for vigor,” Bradford says. “We didn’t water, irrigate or even fertilize them, we just threw them out there to see what would be the survival of the fittest.”
He’s also experimenting with co-cropping, the act of growing two plants in close proximity so that they can benefit from one another, like the symbiotic relationship between a hippo and the bird that eats bugs off of its back — except this one results in not needing to weed or spray pesticides on the crops. Looking in Bradford’s hemp plots, it may be strange to see familiar rounded-leaf peanut plants nestled beneath a canopy of ropy green hemp leaves, but they serve a purpose for one another.
The 20 farmers in the program, administered by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, are anxious to see what these seeds of hope might bring for the state — and for their pockets — if hemp does as well as they think it will.
Hemp production in South Carolina and the entire United States is ramping up. Here at home, the Legislature has already approved doubling the 2019 class of hemp growers to 40 farmers who can each grow 40 acres of hemp. Currently, 34 states allow for lawfully cultivated hemp farming, up from 19 states in 2017. South Carolina joins other Southern states like Alabama and North Carolina in the recent change in their hemp laws. Kentucky was an early adopter, allowing it in 2014, putting the state ahead of others in terms of research and economic benefits.
It is possible that restrictions will continue to be loosened, if not be completely removed. The U.S. Senate passed a bill sponsored by Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in late June 2018 to legalize hemp farming on a federal level.
Hemp was banned in 1937 by the federal government. It was listed as a Schedule 1 drug, along with its lookalike cousin, the supposedly nefarious but well-loved marijuana plant. Both are the species cannabis sativa — but anyone looking to catch a high from hemp will be out of luck, as smoking the plant won’t result in much of anything. It has a negligible amount of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound chemical that is responsible for the marijuana high. Federally, all hemp plants are required to contain less than 0.3 percent of THC.
The other major chemical in hemp is a cannabidiol (CBD) that produces a feeling of relaxation and has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation reduction is the main medical benefit that CBD users are after.
The current U.S. market for hemp is dominated by CBD products, rather than things like rope and paper, with which hemp is more commonly associated.
As South Carolina’s tiny hemp industry grows, farmers and producers will study what products and industries make most sense for the resurgent crop.
Piloting the Way
The hemp pilot program began in May 2017, when Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill that allowed industrial hemp cultivation to begin. It was too late in the growing season at that point, so the application process for the 2018 growing season began. The farmers were selected by the end of 2017 to allow those selected to begin planning out their crops and securing seeds.
To be eligible to be considered as a hemp grower, farmers have to go through a number of hoops, including passing a state and federal background check, having a signed letter of intent from a hemp processor and a qualifying university or college, and submitting GPS coordinates for the land where the hemp will grow. These restrictions remain in place for the 2019 growing season, and the state Department of Agriculture has already started taking applications for the next, larger round of farmers.
Today, the 20 selected farmers are nearing harvest time for their first crops of up to 20 acres each, though not all of the farmers have chosen to grow the maximum amount allowed this first year.
Many of the state’s hemp farmers are going to process their plants this year into CBD oil.
Others, like Bradford, are saving all of the best seeds this year and don’t expect to see a financial profit from this first crop.
“There will be a genetic profit,” Bradford says. “Whatever survives, we will save all of those seeds to plant next year and continue to test them. I’m not going to hang my hat on one good strain when there are so many varieties.”
There is lots of uncertainty about growing a brand-new crop in the state.
Hugh Weathers, the commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, has a lot of questions about the future of hemp farming in the state.
“What are the yields our soil type can produce?” he asks. “Is it better than other states because of our long growing season? And what is the value of their harvest in seed, fiber, or oil?”
Those questions may take several years — and several growing seasons — to answer.
Albert Bueno, who is growing nearly 20 acres of hemp in Orangeburg County, is eager to see what this new crop will do for the state — and is investing a lot of time and energy into his hemp operations.
“We’ve brought in a botanist from Oregon, and we’ve learned a lot of things even from the first day to the second,” says Bueno. “We have a solid game plan for next year that will make things run faster, easier, and we’ll have better control of the costs.”
Bueno is also planning to build a processing facility that will be able to turn the hemp into CBD oil.
“One-hundred percent vertical integration is the goal,” he says.
While CBD oil is a big business for hemp growers across the nation, there are hundreds of other uses for the plant. Weathers says that before the program even began, he was having conversations with major manufacturers in South Carolina to see how hemp-based fiber technology would fit into their futures.
Weathers offers that hemp fibers could be used in airplane seats at the Boeing facility in Charleston, or to create the fabric that lines the interior roof of cars from the BMW facility in Greenville.
Hemp can also be made into paper, fabrics, construction materials and personal care items like lotion. Hemp can even be made into dozens of types of foodstuffs like hemp flour, cold-pressed hemp oil and hemp seeds.
Educating people on the difference between marijuana and hemp is the main hurdle for hemp on a local and national level, those in the industry say.
“Some people are just unsure of the difference between what’s legal and what’s illegal, and we’re doing what we can to help end the stigma surrounding it,” explains Bryan Tayara, who owns Rosewood Market, a natural foods store that also sells hemp and CBD products. “People do not need to be ashamed.”
Tayara believes that the more demand there is for locally grown hemp products, the greater the likelihood they’ll be created — a “grow it and they will come” situation.
“Currently the domestic market is dominated by cannabidiol (CBD) oil producers,” says Erica McBride, executive director of the National Hemp Association. “Markets will expand for food and fiber as more processing facilities emerge, as well as when new technologies that are being researched are brought to market.”
Green for Green
Twenty farmers growing up to 20 acres each won’t produce a lot of hemp this year — the maximum yield from the Palmetto State will still be quite minimal compared to overall hemp production in the United States. In 2016, the U.S. hemp market was estimated to be worth approximately $688 million and is expected to reach over $1 billion by 2020, according to McBride.
Even though there will be twice as many farmers able to grow twice as many acres next year, the same restrictions will still be in place. Those in the program have mixed feelings on whether or not the restrictions should be eased, especially now that hemp is possibly on its way to being federally legalized.
Bradford — who considers himself a grain farmer when it comes to hemp, since he’s one of the few farmers not growing for CBD oil — thinks there should be some restrictions on hemp as a commodity crop, saying the prohibitive cost that it would take one farmer to create infrastructure to grow just 40 acres means mega-farms could easily push a smaller farmer out of business. He does have ideas about what the future should look like.
“We need a hub, with say 10 farmers growing 100 acres each that can share the same harvesting equipment and storage facilities,” Bradford says. “It won’t exist with just 40 acres [per farmer]. It’ll be a slow build, but a good build.”
Bueno, who is a first-time farmer, also thinks that there should be some regulations on the industry to protect both farmers and consumers, and is quick to thank the state Department of Agriculture for their assistance this year in getting the program started.
“They’ve done a stellar job and jumped right in to help us through the stumbling blocks,” Bueno says. “I think that hemp in South Carolina will be a home run at the end of the day.”
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