Hoping for hemp
Zack Brym wanted to gather a few farmers together to talk about growing industrial hemp in Florida. He thought he’d sit down with a dozen or so people.
Nearly 300 signed up.
In three workshops across the state, prospective hemp growers and other interested parties flocked to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to find out if the long-banned crop could become a profitable industry in Florida. One farmer whose citrus groves were wiped out by frost recounted how she switched to growing ferns, only to see her shade houses swept away by hurricanes — twice. Others told of steadily losing their groves to citrus greening, the disease UF/IFAS estimates has cost Florida growers $8.9 billion.
They’re hoping hemp can be their deliverance. Brym’s workshops were the first step in creating a partnership between researchers and people who want to grow, process or sell hemp for uses from joint-pain creams to building materials.
“The enthusiasm is real. The motivation is real. This can be the next big thing for Florida,” says Brym, an agroecologist and plant physiologist who coordinates UF’s industrial hemp pilot project with Rob Gilbert, chairman of UF’s agronomy department.
There’s just one catch: Outside of research projects like this one, growing hemp is still illegal in Florida.
Hemp products are a $700 million industry in the United States. Hemp can be woven into textiles, pressed into paper products, used for animal feed and bedding, planted as a cover crop or eaten (for food, not for a high) in the form of seeds, greens or protein powder. The oil from its seeds is used in cosmetics and cooking, and the cannabidiol extract from its flowers — commonly called CBD — is used for pain and stress relief. Hemp could even provide a biodegradable alternative to plastic.
However, growing hemp in the U.S. has been forbidden for decades, thanks to hemp’s better-known relation, marijuana. You can’t get high on hemp, which contains less than .3 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychotropic component of marijuana. But hemp and marijuana are the same species, largely indistinguishable by sight and smell. Even drug-sniffing dogs can’t tell the difference.
Hemp hasn’t been grown in Florida on a large scale since Prohibition, but in 2014, the federal Farm Bill opened the door for hemp research. In 2017, UF and Florida A&M University got permission from the state to launch a two-year study, which UF’s trustees approved in March 2018.
For UF/IFAS, two years isn’t much time to deliver everything growers need to know. For would-be hemp farmers, it feels like a lifetime.
At the second workshop, held at the UF/IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, one farmer asked a question Brym has heard before: Hemp used to grow here, so why can’t we just use the historical data? As an agroecologist, Brym looks not just at the crop, but the world around it, and he knows 70-year-old data can only take the industry so far. Case in point: When hemp was last grown in Florida, no one had ever heard of CBD oil, one of the more lucrative potential uses.
Brym assured the workshop participants that the project will collect knowledge that’s already available on industrial hemp. In the first year, Brym — with the backing of a team that spans the state, as well as disciplines from economics to pharmacy — will evaluate more than 30 varieties to identify which are best for grain and fiber. In the second year, the team will launch further trials of the most promising varieties.
Green Roads — a Florida-based company offering more than 50 CBD products — signed on as the inaugural sponsor, helping to secure authorization for the pilot program. Team members from Green Roads also shared their knowledge during the three workshops.
“Hemp is an emerging industry that is going to benefit people in the state of Florida in so many different ways,” said Green Roads co-founder Arby Barroso, who also holds the title of “chief evangelist” for the company.
While states such as Kentucky and North Carolina have a head start, “if we do this right, the University of Florida and this pilot program will be able to quickly close that gap,” Barroso said. “That’s why our partnership with UF is so important. It will be transformational for so many industries.”
To expand the scope of the research, UF/IFAS needs additional sponsors to sign on. Prospective growers, processors and product developers can get involved by applying to become project partners, attending field days at the research plots, or volunteering for the project’s advisory group.
Gathering data on so many potential varieties and uses will require plenty of community support, Brym says. It’s just one of the challenges of building an industry from the ground up, especially one as tightly regulated as hemp. The researchers can’t import a single seed without a Schedule 1 license from the Drug Enforcement Agency, and coordination with law enforcement on the location of hemp plots and movement of plant material is critical.
Growers also may have to deal with thieves who mistake a field of hemp for marijuana.
“We’ll have to see how well we can educate people,” Brym says.
He’ll be drawing on UF/IFAS’ century-long history as the research arm of Florida agriculture, which includes the successful introduction of the state’s $82 million blueberry industry. Now UF/IFAS hopes to win again with hemp — and the clock is ticking.
“We have the opportunity to impact the state and push us to be a leader in a new industry,” Brym says. “That responsibility is really terrifying, but it’s also really exciting.”