South Carolina farmers aren’t exactly breaking down doors to get licenses to grow hemp.
No one has applied for one of the initial 20 available licenses since the application process opened Aug. 1. It ends Sept. 15.
The General Assembly agreed earlier this year to allow farmers to start growing industrial hemp, which has a variety of uses, from textiles to body lotions. But to be clear, industrial hemp is not not marijuana. Marijuana will get you high. Hemp will not.
“We’ve had numerous phone calls and questions – maybe hundreds,” said Clint Leach, the S.C. Agricultural Department’s assistant commissioner. “But we have not received one application. I would have thought we would have some by now.”
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Leach said he has talked to several farmers who might file by Sept. 15.
“I’ve talked to farmers as recently as Monday who have said they are interested,” he said. “I know they are working on their applications.”
One farmer who is exploring the possibility of growing hemp is Madison Turnblad, who farms 3,550 acres of cotton, peanuts and corn in Calhoun County.
“There is some apprehension because this is a new pilot program,” he said. “Will it work? Will it be profitable? It’s kind of mixed emotions.”
Leach and Turnblad said several factors may be involved in hemp’s slow launch in the Palmetto State, including:
▪ Farmers are busy.
This is the end of the summer growing season and the beginning of fall planting season.
“Farmers are in their fields working and not behind their computers filling out applications,” Leach said.
▪ It’s new.
Farmers haven’t grown hemp since the 1930s. And it might take awhile for today’s farmers to pull the trigger on a new crop.
“They’re doing their due diligence,” Leach said.
▪ There’s a stigma attached.
Although it lacks the chemical that gets you high, hemp is still perceived by many as marijuana.
“There could be some hesitation for the connotation that comes with hemp,” Turnblad said. “They can’t help but think of marijuana. That stereotype might keep somebody away from it.”
▪ There are costs attached.
Farmers would have to grow hemp on 20 acres, land that could be growing a known commodity. And they would have to invest in seed and retrofitting equipment to plant and harvest.
“Certainly there would be some upfront costs,” Turnblad said.
▪ Where’s the market?
In order to get a license, a farmer must both sign a contract with a rock solid buyer of the crop, and develop a relationship with a four-year university in South Carolina to research uses and markets.
“In order to create an industry we have to find companies to process the crop,” Leach said.
Hemp is used for myriad purposes, from food to clothing to composites for car and airplane parts to oils for dietary supplements. And before the advent of nylon cord, it was the primary material used in sails and lines for ships.
Today, about 90 percent of the hemp used in the United States for industrial purposes is imported from China. But more states are allowing hemp to be grown.
Thirty-one states have laws that provide for hemp production or that allow pilot programs under the auspices of the federal 2014 Farm Bill. The states include North Carolina and Tennessee.
Colorado and Kentucky lead the nation in hemp production, growing more than 10,000 acres each.
The prohibition of hemp began in 1939 when the federal Marijuana Tax Act strictly regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties.
Then the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow in the United States. As a result, the industrial uses for hemp evaporated and were largely forgotten.
But industrial hemp is different from its cousin marijuana in that it contains 0.3 percent or less of the psychoactive chemical that will get you high. Marijuana, a separate variety of Cannabis sativa, can contain up to 40 percent.
One of the concerns today about sanctioning hemp cultivation is that large hemp fields could be used to mask the cultivation of marijuana. But hemp is the dominant of the two species and would neutralize the psychoactive compounds in the marijuana.
In South Carolina, the licenses will be issued to growers who have passed a State Law Enforcement Division background check. The growers also have to work with an in-state research university to develop products and a market for them. And they must have a contracted buyer for the hemp.
After the first year of 20 licenses for 20 acres, the program the next year would expand to 40 licenses for 40 acres each. After that, the Agriculture Department and the state’s research universities would determine whether the program would be expanded.
Turnblad said that despite the lack of applications, farmers are generally supportive of the idea. In addition to possibly being a cash crop, adding another broad leaf crop to the rotation, particularly with peanuts, would lessen the spread of insects and diseases and improve the soil, Turnblad said.
“Anything we can find to diversify would be a huge benefit,” he said.
State’s that allow hemp farming
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia