SC is doubling the number of hemp growers this year. Here’s where it’s cropping up

The number of farmers growing industrial hemp and the number of acres they can plant are doubling in South Carolina.

The S.C. Department of Agriculture has offered permits to 40 farmers to participate in the 2019 S.C. Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. Twenty farmers participated in the program this year.

More than 160 farmers applied for the permits.

The General Assembly approved the pilot program in 2017. Farmers this year could grow up to 20 acres of the crop. Next year, that doubles to 40 acres.

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Nat Bradford kneels in his hemp plot on his farm Tuesday July 31, 2018, in Sumter, SC. Bradford is one of twenty applicants to receive a permit to grow hemp on their property last year. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Come 2020, the state could allow an unlimited number of hemp growers and unlimited amount of acreage.

The program has the backing of state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, who said that the state’s farmers need another profitable crop and that hemp is showing potential both as a money maker and a valuable crop rotation.

“I ... look forward to working with each of the 40 growers this upcoming year to continually build upon our state’s agriculture industry,” Weathers said.

Hemp won’t get you high

The expansion of the hemp pilot program is just one indication that some forms of legalized cannabis are gaining acceptance in the Palmetto State. A bill that would legalize hemp’s cousin marijuana for medical treatment reached the floor of both the S.C. House and Senate this year.

That bill will have to begin a new cycle in next year’s legislative session, but boosters feel more confident that some form of medical marijuana could pass at some point.

Marijuana and hemp are cousins in the cannabis sativa species, but hemp won’t get you high.

Although marijuana and industrial hemp both contain the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC — hemp contains 0.3 percent or less of THC. Marijuana can contain up to 40 percent.

Hemp has seemingly infinite uses, from medicines to textiles to biofuel. For almost three and a half centuries in America, all of the rope used by the sailing industry was made from hemp, among many other uses.

The prohibition of hemp began in 1939 when the federal Marijuana Tax Act strictly regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties. Then in 1970, the federal government classified all cannabis as a controlled substance drug, lumping it together with its trippy cousin.

As a result, the industrial uses for hemp evaporated and largely were forgotten.

Ramping up

In South Carolina, producers are growing hemp mostly for CDB oil, although others are producing hemp for biofuels and other purposes.

One of them is Janel Ralph of Conway.

Ralph is the founder of Palmetto Harmony, a firm that sells CBD products both online and through a brick-and-mortar store. She grew 4,000 plants in greenhouses and outdoor containers to produce the CBD oil, which has therapeutic and medicinal benefits.

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Hemp plants outdoors in tub at Palmetto Harmony farm in Conway Courtesy of Palmetto Harmony

The company is named after Ralph’s daughter, Harmony, who takes CBD oil to control her seizures from intractable epilepsy.

Ralph grew 4,000 plants from seven species. For CBD oil, all of the plants must be grown organically, so the biggest concerns were pests, molds and mildews.

“We learned a lot from the grow,” she said. “It’s a lot like organic tobacco.”

Ralph has identified two species that hold up well in the Pee Dee and plans to continue her greenhouse operation and start doing some row cropping.

“Now that we know we can grow this plant here, we’re ready to ramp up production for the next grow season,” she said.

The state’s selection of the additional growers was based on several factors, including a farmer’s experience and spreading the permits as evenly as possible across the state.

The farmers also have to be affiliated with an approved South Carolina college or university to develop markets and have a buyer and financing.

Nineteen of the 20 growers who participated in the program in 2018 are included in next year’s program.

The farmers’ fields will be located in 24 counties across the state.