Former SC state Rep. Chip Limehouse’s family has been farming in the Palmetto State for eight generations.
“I’ve spent more hours on a tractor than I can remember,” said Limehouse, who represented Charleston in the S.C. House of Representatives for 22 years.
But Tuesday, Limehouse was clearing an additional 20 acres of his 150-acre farm in Aiken County for a new crop – hemp.
Limehouse and former Clemson head football coach Danny Ford are two of 20 South Carolina farmers who recently received the state’s first permits to grow up to 20 acres of the crop, which has myriad uses from food to clothing to composites for car and airplane parts to oils for medicines and dietary supplements.
Hemp is a cousin of marijuana without the chemicals that gets you high. But it has been banned in South Carolina since World War II.
“I’m as pro-law enforcement as you can get; but it’s mystifying to me why we banned it in the first place,” Limehouse said Tuesday. “This could be as big as cotton, rice or indigo. It could rescue South Carolina agriculture.”
Rice and indigo in the 18th and 19th centuries made South Carolina the richest colony in the new world. But those two crops faded into obscurity as markets and production changed through the centuries.
And while cotton is still a viable moneymaker in the Palmetto State, it is no longer king. And experts say South Carolina farmers need hemp to not only add a cash crop, but to help heal the soil as well.
Like corn and soybeans, Hemp cleans pesticides from soil - a process called bioremediation. One of the most dramatic examples of hemp bioremediation qualities was its use in Russia after the Chernobyle nuclear disaster.
“We need the opportunity for diversification,” S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said. “This is a chance to add to our crop mix.”
The licenses were issued to South Carolina growers who passed a State Law Enforcement Division background check. The growers also had to work with one of five in-state research universities to develop products and a market for the crop. And they had to have a contract with a buyer.
For Ford, who plans to grow 16 acres of hemp on his 174-acre cattle, hay and wheat farm in Central, the risk is real, but the rewards could be great.
“There are still a lot of questions,” he said. “We’re liable to lose everything we do this year. But we’re taking it slow. And if it works it can help all the farmers in the state.”
Permits have been issued to farmers in all regions in the state, as part of the experimentation, Weathers said.
“We wanted to get geographic balance around the state,” he said. “Climate. Elevation. This will be a big learning curve.”
If successful, the program next year could expand to 50 licenses for 50 acres each. After that, the Agriculture Department and the state’s research universities would determine whether the program would be expanded.
In states like Colorado and Kentucky, the nation’s leading producers of hemp at more than 10,000 acres each, the acreage is unlimited.
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.
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 largely were forgotten.
But unlike marijuana, hemp can’t get you high. 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 marijuana.
Hemp also has medicinal purposes, some say, although none are recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, Janel Ralph of Conway has a permit to grow 6 acres of hemp, about an acre of which will be cultivated in a 45,000-square-foot greenhouse. She plans to produce hemp oil for her businesses, Palmetto Harmony and Palmetto Synergistic Research.
Ralph has produced the first national hemp commercials, now airing on 43 national cable networks and 72 locals stations.
The company is named after Ralph’s daughter Harmony, who takes cannabidiol or CBD oil to control her seizures from intractable epilepsy. Ralph was the first to apply for a growers permit.
Now, Ralph employs 13 workers and plans to hire 10 more for packing, shipping and customer service.
“We started in March of 2015 and we have been profitable since week three,” Ralph said. “Now that we can control our product, we can start hiring a sales force.”
For Limehouse, the potential to help farmers, produce new products and create jobs is too lucrative to pass up.
“We can’t overlook this opportunity,” he said. “I only see an upside to it.”