Hemp: Florida’s next moneymaker could bring hope to farmers

Hemp is taking the spotlight, as more states around the country rush to get their hands on what’s projected to be a multi-billion dollar industry.

That’s why farmers, business owners and anyone interested in the hemp industry flocked to the Industrial Hemp Pilot Project Workshop in Homestead, hosted by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Kern Carpenter attended the workshop to learn more about the crop. He has grown tomatoes for 36 years, but says farming isn’t what it used to be.

“We’ve been sort of struggling for the last few years and trying to look at different crops, and something else to go to make a profit,” Carpenter said “Because the vegetables, particularly tomatoes, is not where it’s at anymore.”

Carpenter was one of roughly 200 people at the workshop looking for greener pastures.

“We’re all looking for something better to do than what we’re doing,” Carpenter said.

He thinks that could be hemp.

Researchers from UF broke down the findings from their ongoing Hemp Pilot Project and talked about potential challenges like pests, diseases and meeting strict government standards.

“There’s going to be a lot of hurdles,” said Brandon Harris, who grew up farming goats and bees.

Harris says he sees lots of potential with hemp.

“I see a 10-acre farm turning into a 20, maybe 40-acre farm,” Harris said. “I just see a lot going with CBD.”

CBD, or cannabidiol, has already blown up. The hemp extract has spread all over Southwest Florida, as more people seek it out in hopes of treating health issues like pain or anxiety.

“People want to go organic,” Harris said. “They want to get something that’s going to be good for their body.”

Scientists like Zack Brym, who is spearheading the pilot project at the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center, say this research is necessary, so farmers can get it right the first time.

“The eight varieties that you see here represent the hemp that we have from seed across uses: fiber, grain and CBD hemp, in the countries were able to gather from, whether it’s the United States, China, or Europe,” Brym explained as he displayed crop.

He says this plot is the first legal outdoor industrial hemp planting in Florida in 60 years.

“We are really looking to match the genetics of these varieties with the conditions out in the field,” Brym said.

Oversight Manager Jerry Fankhauser says getting that science out to farmers is key.

“I think the potential is strong; it’s there,” Frankhauser said. “We know these particular varieties that we’re looking at can grow well, especially in South Florida.”

Still, Frankhauser said hemp isn’t necessarily an easy crop. The whole process will be highly regulated from seed to store.

“We just don’t want to see a lot of growth that leads to products that can’t be sold,” Fankhauser said.

When it comes to hemp-based products, the possibilities seem endless.

“It’s not just one commodity product at the end of a grow or growing season,” Frankhauser said. “There are a number of uses, maybe hundreds if not thousands of uses.”

So third generation farmers like Carpenter are putting their livelihood out on a limb for a chance at something better.

“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and see where it takes me,” Carpenter said.

Credit: WINK News.

Boosting the economy?

After the state hemp program bill was signed by lawmakers in May, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried hosted three public hearings across the state for stakeholders to give their input on rulemaking. The Hemp Pilot Project research crop in Homestead was planted that same month.

MORE: Florida hosts ‘hemp rules workshops’ for program input

Gov. Ron Desantis signed the bill into law at the end of June, and it went into effect July 1. This made the sale of hemp products legal in Florida, as long as they have less than 0.3% THC (the psychoactive component that gets you high, found in higher quantities in marijuana). But the law does not allow for farmers to start growing yet.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is still fleshing out rules and regulations for the state hemp program, guided in part by what they find in the hemp pilot projects.

On Wednesday, Holly Bell, the state director of cannabis, spoke to farmers and business owners at the Citrus Expo in North Fort Myers. She discussed rulemaking as well as the growing, selling and processing of hemp. She also provided a timeline of what to expect over the next few months.

Bell says this could lift up struggling parts of the economy.

“I believe in some of the rural areas where farmers have struggled, jobs have struggled, processing plants have been slowed down,” Bell said. “If not closed, this could be a way to re-energize those areas and get jobs, get revenue, get sales, get opportunities back into the communities.”

She and Commissioner Fried project Florida hemp could be a multi-million dollar industry in its first year and a multi-billion dollar industry within the next four or more years.

Once rulemaking is complete, FDACS hopes to see permit applications coming in and seeds in the ground by the end of this year.

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Reporter:Sara Girard
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