Fields of Green: Could hemp be South Carolina’s next cash crop?

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South Carolina farmers are one step closer to planting their first hemp seeds in the ground.

The S.C. Department of Agriculture (SCDA) has selected 20 farmers from across the state to participate in the 2018 S.C. Industrial Hemp Pilot Program.

Gov. Henry McMaster legalized industrial hemp cultivation earlier this year, allowing farmers to grow up to 20 acres of hemp for research purposes. The 20 farmers were selected from 131 applications, according to a news release.

“Interest in the program was strong, and the Department of Agriculture worked diligently to select a broad representation of growers,” said S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers, in a news release.

He added that permits were issued based on several factors, including which farmers have the most “agriculture experience.” The farmers who received permits include:

  • Dupree Atkinson, Marion County, 20 acres
  • Steven Neal Baxley, Jr., Marion County, 20 acres
  • Lynell Braught, Ph.D., Hampton County, 18.43 acres
  • David Bulick, Charleston County, 19.95 acres
  • Albert Bueno, Orangeburg County, 19.54 acres
  • Patrick Edward Burch, Florence County, 20 acres
  • Kevin R. Dean, Charleston and Williamsburg County, 20 acres
  • John Andrew Fogle, Orangeburg County, 20 acres
  • Danny Lee Ford II, Pickens County, 16 acres
  • Thomas Garrison, Anderson County, 20 acres
  • Patrick Jamison, Jr. Orangeburg and Lexington County, 5.46 acres
  • Deborah Justice, Oconee County, 20 acres
  • Harry Bancroft (Chip) Limehouse III, Aiken County, 20 acres
  • Robert Mason, Marion County, 20 acres
  • Matthew H. O’Brien, Fairfield County, 20 acres
  • Janel Ralph, Horry County, 5.97 acres
  • John Rivers, Sumter County, 20 acres
  • Robbie Springs, Florence County, 20 acres
  • Joesph Watson, Saluda County, 20 acres
  • Robert Wilkins, Jr., Florence County, 20 acres

The permits will be effective from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2018, according to SCDA Assistant Commissioner Clint Leach. But farmers must meet strict standards and pass background checks with the State Law Enforcement Division and FBI before planting their fields.

Opponents of hemp cultivation argue that large fields could be used to hide the cultivation of marijuana. But hemp would neutralize the psychoactive compounds in marijuana, according to John Finamore, executive director of the National Hemp Association.

Hemp and marijuana look alike, because they come from the same plant species. But “industrial hemp” is legally required to contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Marijuana, on the other hand, can contain up to 40 percent.

Despite the difference, the Drug Enforcement Administration has listed hemp as a Schedule I drug. South Carolina defines “industrial hemp” as any part of the plant with a THC concentration that does not exceed 0.3 percent on a dried weight basis.

Anything above that is illegal.

Leach said South Carolina’s hemp crops will be subject to random testing and that certified growers must provide state officials with GPS coordinates for each plot.

From cash crop to controversy

Hemp wasn’t always so controversial. In fact, it was once a cash crop.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was cultivated by farmers throughout the American colonies and exported to England for clothing, shoes, books, and more. It was also considered legal tender that could be used to pay taxes.

The colonies also used hemp to produce clothing, canvas, sacks, and paper during the years leading up the Revolutionary War. As the relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies deteriorated, it was used to produce wartime supplies. Hemp remained a staple crop across North America even after the colonies gained independence.

Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois produced most of America’s hemp up until the 1900s. But then hemp’s dominance took a downturn in 1937 when the federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which transferred the regulation of hemp production to the Department of Revenue and added a $100 transfer tax on sales, hindering domestic farmers.

When Japan cut off hemp supplies from the Philippines during World War II, the United States launched a marketing campaign, “Hemp for Victory,” to encourage American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible for the war effort. But the demand for domestic hemp fell almost immediately once the war ended, leaving it vulnerable to drug enforcement.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis as Schedule I drugs, causing domestic hemp production to disappear. Now, after nearly a half-century of prohibition, hemp is once again taking root in American soil.

With the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill, universities and state agriculture departments were allowed to begin cultivating industrial hemp for research.

More than 30 states, including North Carolina and Tennessee, have since passed legislation allowing farmers to cultivate hemp, according to the National Hemp Association. At least 16 have legalized hemp production for commercial purposes.

In 2014, for instance, Kentucky launched a pilot program for hemp cultivation. It has since approved more than 200 applications for farmers to grow hemp on more than 14,000 acres. Colorado also launched its pilot program in 2014. It has since seen a 28 percent increase each year in the number of grower registrations and planted more than 9,000 acres with hemp.

Grow hemp, make money  

South Carolina, like other states, could reap the benefits of legalizing industrial hemp.

“The industrial hemp bill adds another opportunity for South Carolina farmers to increase crop diversity,” Weathers said in a news release.

Americans spend more than $580 million annually on hemp products, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Companies use industrial hemp to make rope, clothing, textiles, paper, food, oils, home furnishings, and more.

BMW Manufacturing Co., which operates a facility in Spartanburg County, has used hemp in various models for years, said company spokeswoman Rebecca Kiehne. The German automaker currently lines the door panels of its electric car, the BMW i3, with hemp.

But transforming hemp into a cash crop won’t be easy, according to Chris Ray, director of the Clemson University Experiment Station.

Ray said many hemp farmers across the country struggle to secure viable seeds, especially since the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 made it illegal to transport the plant or its seed across state lines without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In Colorado, where hemp cultivation has been legal since 2012, farmers have struggled with a shortage of seeds. The Denver Post reports that many of the state’s hemp farmers are finding ways to import seeds from other countries, including China and Canada.

But there’s no guarantee that imported seeds will clear U.S. Customs, according to Ray. That’s why some hemp farmers are squirrelling away their seeds, using this year’s harvest as a source of next year’s supply in an attempt to increase acreage.

“Most farmers want to know the costs and returns of producing hemp,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that question yet. But I do know emerging crops usually fail because the market is poor, not because of their productivity.”

Ray added that processing is one of the biggest hurdles that South Carolina farmers will have to overcome since unprocessed seeds can’t cross state lines.

Luckily, Tucker Naturals has announced plans to build a hemp processing and extraction facility at the Godley Morris Commerce Center in Lake City, S.C. The facility is expected to open sometime next year, according to a news release.

The Boston-based firm also plans to partner with Caropar Investments and Massachusetts-based ProVerde Laboratories to construct a testing facility in the commerce center to help farmers ensure their hemp meets state and federal guidelines.

“We have been working with Tucker Naturals for about a year now, and we have jointly hosted several hemp symposiums to educate the farmers on the administrative and growing aspects of the initiative,” said William Morris, president of Caropar. “Tucker Naturals has been great to work with, and they bring vast expertise that will help our farmers.”

As for the future, the SCDA plans to issue 40 permits and allow up to 40 acres per hemp grower for the second and third years of the program, according to Leach. For subsequent years, the state and four-year colleges and universities will determine the number of allowable permits and acreage.

But for the program to expand year after year, Ray said farmers will need to study the growth, cultivation, and marketing of the crop.

The state has selected five universities (University of South Carolina, Medical University of South Carolina, South Carolina State University, Clemson University, and USC Beaufort) to collaborate with agriculture officials to conduct research on the progress of the crops and develop products with certified growers.

Clemson University’s Public Service and Agriculture division plans to work with farmers across the state to see which regions have the best growing conditions.

“Hemp is considered an easy crop, because it can handle a variety of soil types,” Ray said. “But we’re not making any assumptions. The plan is to collect any and all crop data we can during the growing season so that we can see how hemp performs under different conditions.”

He said farmers would likely plant their crops this spring and harvest them in October

For more information, visit agriculture.sc.gov.

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