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Charleston-area cannabis farmers see bright future in South Carolina for hemp production

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BrightMa Farms CEO Harold Singletary (left) talks with Brandon Hudson, director of cultivation, on April 7, 2021, in the greenhouse where they grow hemp. Lauren Petracca/Staff

CORDESVILLE — In 1941, World War II was disrupting normal industrial production. Factories were converted to produce military equipment. Henry Ford, thinking about his Detroit production lines, watched with concern. How would he contend with steel and petroleum shortages?

Ford came up with a solution: the hemp car.

Its body was made mostly with processed hemp-based cellulose combined with other fibers and resin. It was 10 times more resilient than steel, and far lighter than any of Ford’s mass-produced vehicles. It ran on hemp ethanol rather than traditional gasoline. It was environmentally friendly. And it looked pretty good, following the coupe style.

But the oil and steel industries sought to quash the hemp car. It wasn’t very difficult since industrial hemp’s close association to marijuana made it quasi-taboo. The impacts of the Prohibition era still were being felt in the U.S., and the general anti-drug sentiment it fostered would linger for decades to come.

Flash forward to 2021 South Carolina and the state’s Department of Agriculture has a hemp program sparked by an effort to develop new agricultural opportunities. Land-grant universities such as S.C. State and Clemson are working with hemp. And small farmers in the state are embracing a new crop with enormous promise.

BrightMa Farms, located on 10 acres of heirs' property not far from Moncks Corner, is nearly three years into a venture to provide essential technical and strategic support to farmers across the state — especially Black farmers.

Founded by Harold Singletary after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp, the facility consists of a 4,000-square-foot genetics room where the “mother stock” is cultivated, and an 8,000-square-foot state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Singletary said he plans to keep his operation indoors, even as it expands to include more plant preparation for other farmers and various processing and production on the back end of the hemp cycle.

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Brandon Hudson, director of cultivation at BrightMa Farms, waters hemp plant seedlings in the 8,000-square-foot greenhouse on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The privately owned business, capitalized initially with about $2.5 million, is licensed by the state and careful to ensure that the plants contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Its board of directors includes attorneys, doctors and other professionals.

Soon, Singletary and his team will launch a $10 million capital-raising campaign, setting the stage for expansion.

It’s needed, he said. The opportunities are piling up.

BrightMa Farms has partnered with S.C. State University 1890 Research and Extension to train and empower a new generation of young Black farmers. It has partnered with Ed Farm, an initiative of the nonprofit TechAlabama based in Birmingham, Ala., to work with various historically Black colleges and universities. And it has been collaborating with Ford, which is seeking to substitute petroleum-based plastic components with hemp-based materials to improve sustainability and reduce its environmental footprint, according to a letter from Ford’s Research and Innovation Center that was sent to BrightMa Farms in November.

CBD oils and hemp T-shirts are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. The big money is in industrial applications. Singletary and his team want to make sure Black farmers in South Carolina have a stake in this “ag tech” economy.

Sherman Evans, sales and marketing director for BrightMa Farms, thinks it can save the Earth.

Hemp, he said, can be “a replacement for toxic stuff we’re currently using in our products.” It can be used to make paper. “Why tear the forest down?” It can play a major role in reducing carbon emissions. It can even clean up contaminated soils.

Indeed, industrial hemp has thousands of practical applications. It's used to make clothing, rope, biofuel, garden mulch, animal feed, medicines, lotions, concrete, drywall, packaging, insulation, plastics and more.

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Kareem Sharif, a stakeholder of BrightMa Farms (left), and Sherman Evans, marketing and sales director, talk inside the greenhouse on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Problem solving

The United States is way behind the hemp curve, Singletary said. And South Carolina is way behind other U.S. states. There’s a lot of catching up to do if Palmetto State farmers hope to gain traction in the emerging industrial hemp sector.

For millennia, people have been consuming hemp in various forms and using its fibers to make textiles. In the 1950s, petroleum-based fibers used in various kinds of polyesters infiltrated the textile market and plastic permeated every aspect of modern life.

Today, plastic pollution is a big problem. Microplastics shed from our clothing and washed into the waterways and oceans have been detected in the food supply — and in human organs.

Evans said the race is on to ramp up hemp production and build a robust domestic supply chain to provide safer, affordable options to industries of all kinds, and to compete with Europe, China and other countries. China today produces nearly half the world’s hemp, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The European Industrial Hemp Association, concerned with climate change and its global impacts, is pushing “toward a zero-emission bio-based and sustainable economy,” one that mainstreams integration of hemp.

When the containership Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal recently, it disrupted the global supply chain, causing price hikes and product shortages. Evans said domestic industrial hemp production can minimize such disruptions.

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Hemp plants grow in a greenhouse at BrightMa Farms outside Moncks Corner on April 7, 2021. Hemp is a low-THC form of cannabis with many uses, including industrial applications, and it is legal to cultivate it in South Carolina and many other states. Lauren Petracca/Staff

South Carolina has a chance to get in the middle of it all, he said. Already, it’s a mostly agricultural state dominated by small- and medium-size farms. It’s got three climate regions — the Lowcountry, Midlands and Upstate — each with its own characteristics and challenges. But that’s why BrightMa Farms is cloning various strains in its nursery, to ensure it can offer a hearty plant that tolerates the conditions of any particular place.

“It’s going to be one of the strongest agricultural staples in the state,” Evans said. “If we do it right.”

Vanessa Elsalah, hemp program coordinator for the S.C. Agriculture Department, said what started out as a pilot program involving 20 farmers has grown in three years to include 267 farmers across the state. Her department has adopted USDA guidelines and provided regulatory oversight.

Interest in the program has prompted the department to hire more staff, including four compliance inspectors, facilitate connections between farmers, and coordinate with Clemson University Cooperative Extension to better understand the market opportunities, she said.

Farmers have been focused on CBD but are likely to shift toward fiber as the industry heats up, she said.

Singletary has been working with the department since the beginning, Elsalah said. BrightMa Farms has sponsored other farmers and helped them navigate unfamiliar waters.

"He's wonderful to work with," Elsalah said.

Aiding Black farmers

Hemp cultivation is a good way to recruit young Black farmers and address 150 years of racism that has reduced Black agricultural land holdings by 90 percent, Singletary said.

By the end of the Civil War, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had proclaimed that freed Black people should get up to 40 acres of the land they tilled as slaves, and some Black farmers did manage to secure some acreage. It was meant to be part of a large-scale agrarian reform effort that had support from the War Department and abolitionists, and that offered hope to the formerly enslaved.

Sherman’s “Special Field Orders No. 15” and bills concerning the Freedmen’s Bureau established by Abraham Lincoln were undermined and soon annulled and reversed by President Andrew Johnson. Most of the land that had been allocated to Black people was restored to its original White owners within a few years.

Nevertheless, Black people after the Civil War, especially in the South, valued land ownership nearly as much as freedom itself, for farming was the path to prosperity, Charles Joyner writes in his book “Down by the Riverside.” In South Carolina, they settled in pinelands where they could purchase land for $1 an acre, or they laid claim to portions of the plantations where they had been laboring. Eventually a system of tenant farming emerged, requiring Black farmers to pay rent to White landowners, either in the form of crops or cash.

Through a variety of means, Black people by the early 1900s owned perhaps 15 million acres of land, primarily in the South. Over the course of a century defined by institutional discrimination, the number of Black farmers has been reduced by 98 percent, and land holdings reduced by 90 percent, according to academic studies and government assessments.

The racism was manifested in a variety of ways — in the form of Jim Crow laws and practices that made life miserable for Black people in the South and prompted the Great Migration; through Department of Agriculture policies that favored the interests of White farmers over those of Black farmers; and as private-sector racial discrimination that denied Black farmers equal access to capital.

Hemp Cultivation in Early South Carolina

A depiction of dressing hemp, from the 1762 edition of Denis Diderot's encyclopedia. 

Scholars estimate that these practices denied Black farmers approximately $300 billion in profits over time. President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus relief plan includes about $5 billion earmarked for "socially disadvantaged farmers," to help with debt relief and land acquisition. The aid represents an important step toward addressing historical discrimination, advocates say.

Singletary is one of the Black farmers who still owns land. He grew up on a traditional farm and knows firsthand how difficult that life can be. He prefers the indoor controlled environment and the entrepreneurial opportunities that come with it, he said.

He inherited this property in 2000 from his grandmother, Katie Heyward Roper. “It meant a lot to her,” he said. “She figured I’d be the one to generate intergenerational wealth for the family.”

Katie Roper inherited this tract from her grandmother, Katie Heyward, who was born into slavery, labored on the Ball family’s Comingtee Plantation in Berkeley County, and had the foresight after emancipation to secure land nearby. She had a nickname: Bright Ma.

This is heirs' property, but unlike so many others who lost family property through often-exploitative partition sales, Singletary has inherited his 10 acres intact and secured a formal deed.

He knows the medicinal effects of cannabis firsthand. His mother, Anna Delores Singletary, was afflicted with bone cancer, endured two bone marrow transplants, and died in 2015. But her suffering was somewhat relieved by the CBD and THC that her son provided.

Singletary was an infantryman in the Army and, in the early 1990s, saw action in Haiti after a military coup ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first freely elected leader. He found himself embroiled in a terrible mess. It was difficult to distinguish between irregular fighters and civilians, he said. The country’s politics were ablaze, and U.S. troops were using lethal force.

The violence left a profound psychological scar, he said. He found some relief from his post-traumatic stress disorder in marijuana.

Gullah-Geechee people long have relied on herbal remedies for bothersome ailments.

“We come from people who treat themselves holistically with herbs,” Singletary said. “We’ve gotten away from that” — largely because of the influences of “Big Pharma” and the vilification of cannabis.

The tide is turning, though. CBD generally is available from stores, medical marijuana increasingly is an accepted (and legal) alternative to synthetic drugs, and the use of recreational marijuana now is permitted in several states, most recently including New York and Virginia, which cite racial equity and social justice as part of the rationale.

In South Carolina, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mia S. McLeod to decriminalize and regulate marijuana was introduced in January, though it is unlikely to receive serious consideration any time soon.

'Owning hemp'

Louis Whitesides, executive director of S.C. State’s 1890 Research and Extension program, said land-grant institutions like his are eager to help develop controlled, environmentally sustainable agriculture.

“We want to make sure minority farmers get to participate in this new economic boom that’s coming to the state,” he said.

The 1890 program and BrightMa Farms are strategic partners, working on trials, collecting data, training students, and developing standard operating procedures for small farmers.

Florence Anoruo at BrightMa Farms

Florence Anoruo, of S.C. State University's 1890 Research and Extension Program, visited BrightMa Farms on April 11, 2021. BrightMa Farms/Provided

The challenges are explicit: The regulatory status is in flux, the politics uncertain, the farmer population in South Carolina aging, the supply chain ill-defined and not fully established. But hemp is happening no matter what, so state regulators and farmers can get on board or get left behind.

“With industrial hemp, we’re seeing renewed interest in farming among younger folks,” he said. It’s a good alternative to traditional outdoor farming. You can grow more with less space, and do so sustainably, Whitesides said. “That is the future of farming.”

S.C. State 1890 farm

The S.C. State University 1890 Research and Demonstration farm, located in Olar, is situated on nearly 200 acres. Planned hemp research activities include sustainable production of industrial hemp clones for oils and the establishment of a processing facility for oils, grains and fibers. S.C. State University/Provided

S.C. State is just one HBCU actively engaged in the emerging hemp business. Many others are plugged into the Ed Farm’s Atlanta-based Propel Center, which has backing from Apple and Southern Co., and which seeks to empower young Black entrepreneurs. It’s meant to serve as “a centralized nexus and symbol for HBCU collaboration across the country.”

BrightMa Farms is one of its partners and leads the center’s “ag tech” programming. The goal is to build domestic demand and create a robust means of production, management, distribution, and waste processing — the infrastructure needed to create what’s referred to as a sustainable “circular economy.”

Singletary, who is treasurer of the U.S. Hemp Growers Association, has a panoramic view of the business. He sees multinational clothing brands integrating hemp fibers, auto companies developing alternative plastic products and more. He looks abroad and sees how the industry is advancing faster in Europe and China. He wants to make a difference in the American South.

Black people, he said “are going from growing rice and cotton to owning hemp.”

'An ideal crop'

In the greenhouse, fans circulate humidity-regulated air. The influx of natural light restricted to no more than 12 hours. The water is purified using reverse osmosis.

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Hemp, unlike marijuana, contains very little of the psychoactive ingredient THC and increasingly is used in industrial manufacturing. BrightMa Farms grows variants of hemp at its facility outside Moncks Corner on April 7, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Cultivation Director Brandon Hudson controls the temperature and carefully selects the soil in which to plant his seedlings. He gently waters potted plants that sit atop a long sliding table. Hudson is the brains behind the genetic manipulation and cloning that produces cannabis suitable to many different environments.

He said it takes an average of about 120 days from seeding to maturation, making this an ideal crop that can provide three annual harvests.

Singletary, who always thinks big, is determined to position BrightMa Farms at the heart of the American hemp industry. He wants to engineer a large menu of cannabis strains and sell the plants to farmers, then set up robust processing solutions on the back end.

He wants the U.S. to create a domestic supply chain. And he wants to introduce hemp solutions abroad in parts of Africa.

“I’ve always said we would have a global footprint,” he said. “I test-drive dreams.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.

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