Around here tobacco and cotton are king, but the potential for hemp to take that spot has never been better.
The state legislature passed a law last month that created a “pilot program” for industrial hemp production in hopes of bolstering research and pinpointing which growing methods work best in this state.
Despite a common misconception, hemp and marijuana are not the same. Industrial hemp is a plant best used for fibers crops and oils, while marijuana is a crop most often used for its psychoactive and medicinal features.
The goal, lawmakers have said, is to reach statewide mass industrial hemp production within the next five years.
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“We’re still three to five years from this becoming a large-scale, sustainable economic engine simply because of how the legislation is written,” said Rep. Roger Kirby, a Florence County Democrat who was one of the original co-signers of the bill.
“We’re excited about the possibilities but we’re still in a test phase,” he said. “We have to determine what works best for the state from a production standpoint, which practices work best and which varieties grow best.”
Sometime this summer, the state Department of Agriculture and the State Law Enforcement Division will issue 20 licenses to grow hemp crops on up to 20 acres of farm land. The law also allows for state researchers and universities to legally study the herb.
After the first year, the program would expand to 50 licenses for 50 acres. Beyond that, the Agriculture Department and the state’s research universities would have to determine whether the program would be expanded.
South Carolina agriculture is worth $3 billion annually.
Rep. Kirby said full legalization of hemp production, when phased in, would be one of the biggest plays for South Carolina farmers in recent history.
“The Pee Dee hasn’t had a sustainable cash crop since big tobacco went away in the early 2000s,” he said. “I think it’s not only possible for hemp to become that type of cash crop, I think you will see it happen in the next five to 10 years.”
An early concern for area farmers was the viability of sale when the time comes to harvest the crop. Kirby said the market potential is already there; South Carolina just has to tap into it.
One example: BMW manufacturing in Spartanburg uses a hemp composite in door paneling for some of its models but imports the product from oversees.
“Why import when we can grow it right here?” Kirby asked. “More than that, we’ve already got industrial interests in this area from producers, from researchers, medicinal manufacturers, bio-mass companies, bio-fuel companies and fiber companies. The market is there not just in South Carolina but worldwide.”
Dr. Gregory Pryor, a biofuels researcher and professor of biology at Francis Marion University, said hemp has potential to provide eco-friendly solution on a variety of fronts.
“Take cotton, for example, it requires a lot more water than hemp and takes a ton of pesticides and herbicides to get that white cotton ball we see on the stem in the fall,” he said. “Hemp is essentially a weed and doesn’t require that type of chemical treatment. From an environmental standpoint, it’s a better option.”
Hemp is more than a traditional industrial style crop, Pryor said. Ethanol can be sourced from the hemp’s stalk and oils from the seeds can be converted into biodiesel, on top of the myriad of other uses for hemp.
This could be a solution to reducing carbon emissions and steering fuels toward a sustainable model, rather than relying on depleting fossil fuels.
When a plant grows, it consumes carbon dioxide. When that plant, hemp in this case, is processed it into fuel and burned, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide consumed by the plant back into the atmosphere. This makes biofuels carbon neutral.
Other oils are carbon based and, when burned, release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“South Carolina has the potential to reduce our reliance on foreign oil with something like hemp,” Pryor said. “And the biggest benefit is that we can grow it right here; it’s sustainable and renewable. The illegality of it is ridiculous because you can’t get high with industrial hemp at all.”
Hemp v. marijuana
Hemp has plenty of uses: fibers, papers, food products, medicines, oils, composite materials and biofuels, among other things.
One thing it isn’t used for, however, is achieving a high.
Industrial hemp contains 0.3 percent or less of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that creates a high. Marijuana is a separate class of cannabis sativa that typically contains up to 40 percent THC.
An early concern from law enforcement was the potential for pot-farmers to mask illegal operations under the guise of industrial hemp production.
Research shows, however, that pollen from industrial hemp can ruin the THC quantity and quality in marijuana – making it more of a threat to marijuana crops than a viable camouflage.
Hemp in America
Hemp in America dates back to the early 1600s and was grown by some of the nation’s founding fathers.
Historically, hemp has been cultivated into canvas for tents and sail cloths. Paper from hemp was used on several famous documents including, the original King James Bible and first drafts of the Declaration of Independence.
Hemp was grown in the U.S. until the late 1930s.
In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act strictly regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties – including hemp. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis, also including hemp, as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow.
In 2014, the U.S. Congress passed a bill allowing states that have passed their own industrial hemp legislation to grow hemp for purposes of research and development.
Since then, 31 states have approved some type of hemp legislation.