COLUMBIA — Danny Ford, Clemson University's first national championship football coach, and former state Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston, are among the 20 farmers who can legally grow hemp in South Carolina under a law approved earlier this year. 

Ford, who led Clemson to its 1981 title, plans to grow hemp on 16 acres in Pickens County, while Limehouse, a Republican, will grow it on 20 acres — the maximum allowed — in Aiken County, according to the state Agriculture Department. 

More than 130 people applied to participate in the pilot program's inaugural year. The agency announced the 20 permit winners this week.

"I think South Carolina is poised to be on the front end of hopefully, a great new agricultural boon," said Limehouse, who did not seek re-election in 2016 after 22 years in the House.

"This could be the next indigo, rice, or cotton for South Carolina," he said.

Factors weighed in selecting the 20 winners included their agricultural experience, ability to secure financing and their farm's location.

"We tried to do a geographic dispersion around the state and a little clustering when we did," Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said Friday. 

Narrowing the field to the 20 allowed by law was tough, he added. "We could have easily had 40 to 50 very legitimate permittees."

The permits will go to farmers in 15 of the state's 46 counties, many of which represent the state's bread-basket for traditional or historic crops. Marion, Florence and Charleston counties are among them.

The law signed by Gov. Henry McMaster in May requires each participant to partner with a university for research. The program will expand to 40 farmers planting up to 40 acres each in the experiment's second and third years.

In the following years, the number of permits will be determined by the agriculture agency and participating universities. 

Limehouse, whose grandfather started Limehouse Produce in Charleston County, said he's owned a 150-acre farm in Aiken County for several years. He has partnered with South Carolina State University in Orangeburg for the research element.

Other participating schools are the University of South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina, Clemson University and USC-Beaufort. 

Limehouse expects to plant his crop in mid- to late-March.

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"I'm excited to be chosen to be part of the initial pilot program because of the many, many practical uses for hemp that we don’t even know about yet," he said. "Why hemp was banned to start with I don’t know. Hemp is not marijuana, but I think it’s high time we have medical marijuana."

Hemp growing has been illegal for decades. The ban stems from its physical similarity to marijuana, even though hemp has only a small fraction of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

Hemp fibers can be made into rope and clothing. Non-psychoactive cannabidiol, known as CBD oil, can also be derived from hemp.

In 2014, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a limited law allowing people suffering from severe epilepsy, or their caregivers, to legally possess CBD oil. Proposals to broadly legalize medical marijuana remain stuck in House and Senate committees despite being backed by some of the Legislature's most conservative Republicans.   

South Carolina follows Kentucky and Tennessee in launching an industrial hemp program that was allowed under the 2014 federal farm bill. 

"I've told my folks we want to leapfrog these states that got a head start," Weathers said. "If the market will bear it, we want to be well ahead of them. ... We need crop diversification in South Carolina now."  

Ford did not immediately return messages Friday, but Weathers confirmed that the "Danny Lee Ford II" on the agency's list of selected farmers is indeed the former Clemson coach.   

Most of the permittees applied to farm the maximum 20 acres. The smallest planting will be on 5.5 acres, for a total acreage of 365 acres in 15 counties statewide. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.