Nat Bradford Hemp Aiden

Nat Bradford — whose son Aiden is pictured here — is growing hemp as a grain crop. 

Across South Carolina, farmers have long been planning their 2019 crops, and none more intently than the farmers who are invested in the state’s newest and most talked-about crop: hemp.

After a decades-long ban, 2018 was the first year in which Palmetto State farmers could legally grow hemp, with 20 farmers across the state being permitted to grow up to 20 acres each. A myriad of stipulations and background checks were placed on these farmers, but the program is growing statewide. In 2019, 40 farmers across 24 counties will be able to grow double the amount from last year, up to 40 acres each. Nineteen of the original 20 farmers are included in this year’s growing roster.

“I’m excited about the increased interest in growing industrial hemp, and look forward to working with each of the 40 growers this upcoming year to continually build upon our state’s agriculture industry,” says Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture.

Nationally, hemp is getting a boost, too, with the passage of the latest Farm Bill, which legalized hemp nationwide and removed its status as a Schedule 1 drug. Farmers are hoping that it will move toward being a cash crop like cotton, soybeans, corn and wheat, which have low prices currently. Hemp can be used in a multitude of ways, including for paper, textiles, biofuel, insulation, skin care products, food — and yes, CBD oil. Wellness products created from hemp are among its most popular uses, and are projected to grow as more people discover the medicinal benefits of the plant.

“A high priority is nurturing the current growers and the investments they made, risks they took for this inaugural growing season,” Weathers says. “And as we continue developing this industry, we work towards a goal of expanding opportunities for farmers, so South Carolina can truly compete on a national and international level.”

Nat Bradford, a Sumter farmer known for his family’s heirloom watermelons, is ready to get started earlier on his hemp crop this year.

“It was June by the time we planted last year, and I want to plant right around the beginning of March,” Bradford says. He even thinks it may be possible to get two crops out of the long growing season that South Carolina’s mild climate offers.

The hemp crop that Bradford is growing is markedly different than most growers in the state, though. He wants to grow hemp as a grain crop, not for CBD.

He wanted to press his hemp for food-grade oil at the end of 2018, but didn’t feel that he had the right genetics in the plants to achieve that goal. Not all was lost, though.

“My first hemp crop ended very differently than what I set out to do but it ended up very positively,” Bradford says.

As for what he’ll do differently in 2019 (other than grow more hemp), Bradford plans to grow his best-performing hemp seeds saved from 2018 in a few different areas to better manage the cross pollination.

“I still hope that by the end of 2019 I will have enough to do a small batch pressing of food-grade oil, even if it’s just 10 cases of oil, to say we made it in South Carolina,” Bradford says.

He has chefs and brewers clamoring to get their hands on locally produced food-grade hemp products like the oil, and hemp flour.

“It’s like a new color in their crayon box,” he says.

The state’s hemp regulations will likely evolve in the coming years.

“We are looking to remove caps and have unlimited permits and acreage available by 2020,” says Vanessa Elsalah, hemp outreach specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, which should foster even more growth in coming years for South Carolina farmers.

As far as the future of hemp across the nation and the state, it is looking positive, though no economic impact numbers are available for South Carolina yet. Nationally, hemp-based product sales are projected to reach $1.8 billion in consumer sales by 2020, as forecasted by the Hemp Business Journal and Votehemp number reported by Clemson University. That’s up from $200 million in 2012, showing that hemp is only getting more pervasive as more research is done on it and more people look into what it can do for them.

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