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The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project

Here at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, answering questions about industrial hemp lately has been like running a shaved ice stand on the hottest day of the year. We’re filling orders as fast as we can, trying to keep the line orderly and managing expectations. Ever since the 2018 Federal Farm Bill opened the door to let states regulate their own hemp production, we’ve been flooded with requests for information about when, where and how to grow hemp in Florida.

It’s easy to see why. Hemp is seen as a potential alternative crop for growers who have watched their life savings being whittled away by pests, pathogens, hurricanes and competition from overseas. Entrepreneurs are gearing up for new markets in hemp products such as fiber, grain and cannabidiol (CDB) oil. Environmental organizations envision the potential for hemp as a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibers and plastic packaging. Proponents of marijuana for medical and/or recreational use see the new Farm Bill as the next step towards legalization. In the media, the level of expectation is somewhere between Silicon Valley in the 1970s and Sutter’s Mill in 1849.

But it’s important to point out that Florida’s hemp industry won’t take root overnight.

First of all, farmers can’t grow it yet. Contrary to what some headlines imply, hemp is not yet legal to grow in Florida, and when it is legal, it will be strictly regulated. The US Department of Agriculture is currently in the process of responding to the 2018 Farm Bill, which for the first time defines hemp as an agricultural commodity. The USDA intends to issue regulations in fall of 2019 for states to grow hemp, and the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services (FDACS) is currently drafting plans for a state hemp regulatory plan to submit to the USDA. In the meantime, Florida is still under the laws and regulations defined by the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the terms of that bill and a 2017 Florida Statute, the University of Florida was granted exclusive authorization to grow hemp for the purposes of research. The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project is currently conducting research in Homestead, Hague, Quincy and other UF/IFAS facilities around the state. Dr. Zachary Brym of the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center coordinates a team of fifteen UF/IFAS faculty who specialize in crop varieties, cropping systems, invasion species and economic analysis. Research is still in its early stages–the first hemp seeds were planted in May of this year. At least until 2020,  the research facilities UF/IFAS and FAMU are the only places where hemp grows legally in Florida.

Zach Brym, coordinator of the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, with CBD hemp “cherry blossom” variety in foreground and taller Chinese and European varieties in the background.

A pilot project to conduct research on industrial hemp is necessary for very practical reasons. Hemp hasn’t been cultivated commercially in Florida since the 1940s. Since then, a huge amount of progress has been made in agronomic research and the varieties and uses of hemp plants have vastly multiplied. If hemp is to succeed as a crop in Florida, farmers will need to know which varieties grow best in our climate and the most effective cropping systems and pest management practices to use. The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project is conducting trials of 46 hemp varieties, including grain, fiber and CBD types.

There’s also a lot that we don’t know about how to process, regulate and market hemp products. The pilot project is conducting economic analysis to determine the input costs of growing hemp, the expectations of hemp’s market value, and when it’s safe to recommend hemp as a viable crop.

Most importantly, hemp production will need to be safe for Florida’s environment. Invasions of non-native plant species are a significant ecological and economic problem in our state. The last thing Florida needs is another invasive plant, and hemp scores in the ‘high invasion risk’ category because of what is known in other states and countries about its ability to escape and colonize natural areas outside of cultivation. The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project is conducting studies of hemp’s risk of invasiveness, so that it can help develop best management practices for hemp plantings and seed transportation to reduce invasion risk.

We hope that hemp will succeed as an alternative crop in Florida, and the best way to do that is to begin from the ground up with unbiased, research-based information about varieties, conditions, practices, markets and regulation for the new hemp industry. Making that information as comprehensive and accessible as possible is what UF/IFAS Extension is designed to do, and we’ve been out in front of the industrial hemp issue, working closely with researchers and industry professionals, since before the first seeds were planted.

The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project website (https://programs.ifas.ufl.edu/hemp/) is the best place to go for the latest information about the progress of UF/IFAS research into growing hemp commercially in Florida.

Throughout the summer, UF/IFAS will be conducting a series of workshops and field days for industry professionals and agricultural growers. Topics will include variety trials, invasion risk, cropping systems, entomology and pathology sightings, propagation, testing for THC, economics and what farmers should know before planting. Note: Visit https://programs.ifas.ufl.edu/hemp/ to learn about registering for upcoming field days and workshops.

On July 22, Zach Brym and Assistant Director for the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station Jerry Fankhauser were my guests for a UF/IFAS Extension Connections webinar featuring a status report on the Industrial Hemp Pilot Project. A recording is available on the UF/IFAS Extension Administration website at https://extadmin.ifas.ufl.edu/communications/extension-connections-webinar-new/.

In the meantime, if you have media questions about the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, please contact Ruth Borger at (352) 294-3329 or rborger@ufl.edu.

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