Industrial Hemp: A Possible New Frontier in Florida Agriculture
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about industrial hemp and its possible potential to impact Florida’s agricultural industry. I thought I would share what the University of Florida/IFAS is doing to understand how this crop might grow in Florida and if it can be a viable alternative for some farmers. It is important to know that hemp is still illegal to grow in Florida without a permit. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), who regulates agricultural commodities, has only approved permits for UF and FAMU to grow industrial hemp for research. The FDACS is drafting regulations to allow for private agricultural operations to grow industrial hemp in Florida with a similar process unfolding at the federal level at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
So, what should you know about industrial hemp?
Hemp is the same plant species as marijuana – Cannabis sativa. By federal and state law, industrial hemp is defined as Cannabis sativa with no more than 0.3% total THC by dry-weight analysis. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is one of many cannabinoids, and the one most responsible for the mind-altering affects usually associated with marijuana. Cannabis hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years throughout the world for its fibers, seeds, and oils. In the Americas, hemp was grown by many colonists for sails, wagon coverings, rope, and paper. Much of the hemp grown in the United States was done so in the northern states, where it can grow wild, and in some cases, is now considered a noxious weed.
Due to the drug-like properties of marijuana, Cannabis of all types was effectively prohibited in the early to mid-1900s. There was a brief period, during World War II, when it became legal to grow hemp due to an interruption in the normal supply of industrial fibers. The long-standing prohibition on growing Cannabis has resulted in a lack of science-based information regarding varieties and production practices to help inform current potential growers. Growing industrial hemp in Florida will be risky without specific knowledge gained from experimentation and research. That research takes time, as experimental plots must be grown over several seasons to generate enough data and consistent results to be confident in making recommendations to farmers. UF/IFAS is just beginning this research and may not have definitive results or recommendations for several years.
What does UF/IFAS’s Industrial Hemp Research Project Entail?
The main objectives of the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project are to determine what varieties are suited to Florida’s various and unique environments, to develop management practices and cropping systems that will be economically viable, and to assess the risk of invasion in Florida’s natural ecosystems. There are many varieties of industrial hemp that have been bred and grown in countries that have allowed for its cultivation, such as Canada, China, and France. These varieties may or may not be suitable to Florida’s high temperatures, humid climate and relatively short daylength. Cannabis is a short-day plant, and shorter days initiate flowering—which might be too soon in Florida. Finding the right varieties for Florida is crucial before large-scale planting can take place.
Once suitable varieties for Florida are determined, farmers will then need to know the best practices to grow industrial hemp and if it will be economically feasible under current market conditions. While growers and researchers in other states have begun to gather data and gain experience with hemp, their observations will need to be interpreted cautiously with respect to Florida’s unique environment. Until researchers at UF/IFAS collect enough data and observations, Florida-specific recommendations cannot be provided.
Currently, there is a growing market for products containing cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabinoid that does not cause the mind-altering effects of marijuana and is being explored to treat various medical conditions. Industrial hemp can also be used in a variety of other end-products, including foods, plastics, and fibers. While there might be potential for Florida growers to produce industrial hemp, information specific to Florida is currently unavailable. UF/IFAS is developing a strong research program in support of the future industry and collecting information for future farmers. Producers considering industrial hemp as a possible commodity, can keep up with the latest information available from the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp research team at https://programs.ifas.ufl.edu/hemp/. More information on the development of the FDACS hemp program and the permitting process is available online at https://www.fdacs.gov/Cannabis/Hemp-CBD-in-Florida.