Senators to hemp experts: Do we know what we’re doing?

Hemp being grown indoors for flower to produce CBD oil. Credit: Florida A&M University hemp pilot project report to Florida Senate Agriculture Committee.

Aside from myriad unknowns about farming hemp in Florida, there’s no clear path to develop manufacturing facilities here in the event that eager researchers and farmers figure out how to cultivate this new crop.

“I’ve watched other states make this mistake. If there’s no one there to buy it, if there’s no one there to process it, our growers will also fail,” said Florida’s hemp czar Holly Bell, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She was addressing the Florida Senate Agriculture Committee this week.

“You have to develop the processors, the manufacturers, the retail side at the same time you’re doing cultivation. Economic development, that’s the key.”

“Who is in charge of that?” asked committee Vice Chairman George Gainer, whose district includes hurricane-ravaged Bay and Jackson counties. Those and nine other counties lost 500 million pine trees, worth $1.3 billion, to Hurricane Michael. Some foresters are thinking of converting from timber to hemp.

Bell answered, “There is no official person in charge of economic development at this point.”

Large portions of hemp crops this fall in other states are going to waste because there is too much hemp for the few manufacturers nearby.

Senators on the committee expressed alarm along with uneasy hope that an emerging hemp industry can offset drastic losses in Florida agriculture, especially in citrus and timber. Though hoping for encouraging updates, they heard testimony this week from hemp researchers and hemp policy leaders citing one unknown after another.

Sen. Doug Broxson, representing far northwest Florida, said he doesn’t want this state to give its farmers bad advice.

“Why are we in such a rush … when we really probably don’t know what we’re doing?” Broxson asked. “We’re moving at lightning speed to introduce a product to willing farmers that we don’t really know the impact of.

“I just don’t know how you put the brakes on this and still send the message that Florida is open to moving forward in promoting the industrial production of hemp.”

Jerry Fankhauser, representing the University of Florida’s hemp pilot project, said researchers are cautiously optimistic but simply do not have enough time before hemp permitting begins next year to resolve scientific questions about hemp pollen drift (which can infect neighboring crops), which plantings will succeed in Florida, how to resist pests and disease, and how to restrain THC (a key compound in marijuana) content in a hemp crop so that it remains legal to sell.

“I tell people, we came out of the rest stop and jumped into the fast lane of the interstate of science with industrial hemp,” Frankhauser said. “My comfort level … is not really great, as a scientist.”

Still, Fankhauser said, researchers are finding ways to help farmers willing and able to gamble on what could prove a lucrative industry. Experience in agriculture and understanding of business practices such as building supply-chain networks will be their best assets, he said.

And he offered this: “Start small.”

Emily Duda Buckley, legislative affairs director for the Agriculture Department, said lawmakers rushed to implement legislation and rules right after President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which included legalization of hemp.

“States that were up and running [with pilot projects] had an advantage over Florida,” Buckley said. “What we didn’t want was people who’d been ravaged by Hurricane Michael, or dealing with citrus greening for the past decade, or who had other issues where they were just looking for something to diversity their crops with, we didn’t want them to be held back, but we did want them to have guidance.”

Sen. Bill Montford said farmers in his north Florida district, which suffered catastrophic losses due to Hurricane Michael, want to try growing hemp but can ill afford to gamble on it and lose. He said policymakers must be careful to provide the most accurate, reliable information available.

“I’ve got some desperate people in my district, and y’all do too, and so when you’re desperate, you’re willing to take a chance that in ordinary times you might not,” Montford said.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Ben Albritton, a citrus grower who represents a farming district in south-central Florida, asked Bell and Fankhauser to advise lawmakers about how to help develop the missing infrastructure and to advance research into best farming practices that could make hemp succeed here. He said Florida needs hemp to work.

“We need some specifics to get behind,” Albritton said. “It’s irresponsible for FDACS [the Agriculture Department] or any senator or any House member or any leader that’s looked at by our constituents to say, ‘Go forth and grow this stuff; you’re going to make 40 grand an acre’. That’s a lie.”