Florida’s citrus industry has been devastated by disease and hurricanes. The industry has been on a steady decline for years, removing one of Florida’s most important commodities. The state and researchers are desperately trying to find a solution but it has not been easy. The latest proposal is to replace oranges with industrial hemp. Hemp is a cousin of marijuana but has very low levels of THC. It has been criticized for being invasive, which means that it can spread quickly and take over habitat of plants that are indigenous to Florida. Florida already has a big invasive plant problem, but from an economic perspective, industrial hemp has a lot of promise. Can you imagine driving down Florida highways and seeing fields of hemp?
Florida citrus is a crop plagued by citrus greening and recently battered by Hurricane Irma. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released 2017 Florida orange production forecasts last Thursday; it was bleak, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam hinted the crop damage might actually be worse.
In slight irony, this was just a day before the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services held a public rule-making meeting for a law passed last year that legalized research for industrial hemp.
Industrial hemp is modified to produce a negligible amount (less than 1 percent) of THC, the compound known for producing psychotropic effects. Hemp is said to be used in over 25,000 products – even BMWs.
In 2014, the federal government passed a bill providing for hemp research, and perhaps commercialization, to occur on a state-by-state basis after states authorized agriculture departments and universities to conduct research and determine the plant to be effective.
This is what inspired Dr. Jeffrey Sharkey to push industrial hemp legislation in the state. He’s managing partner of Capitol Alliance Group, a lobbying firm, and executive director of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. Hemp could potentially be a cash crop, he said.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law last year, potentially paving the way for the plant, so long as research proves it safe to cultivate. Namely, lawmakers want to know whether the plant is truly invasive and what effect it might have on other Florida crops.
In accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill, the law allows the two Florida land grant universities – University of Florida and Florida A&M University – to develop public-private partnerships to produce hemp, analyze results and report back to the Legislature.
This research, according to the state law, must occur within two years. It’s no surprise that the two universities are working swiftly – perhaps even quicker than FDACS’ rule-making staff.
“As rules are being finalized, we’re investigating how we would import hemp seeds for planting,” said Robert Gilbert, chair of the Agronomy Department at UF.
He wants to see seeds in the ground by next spring. He says the school still hasn’t developed public-private partnerships, but the university’s research centers in Homestead, Citra and the Panhandle already are willing to begin research.
It’s not a race against time, but Gilbert explained they’re mindful of the two-year window, which for some is aggravating.
Bob Clayton, owner of Florida Hemp Processing, explained the predicament his business faces: “We are studying how to process the hemp,” he said. “We think we have that breakthrough, but we have to test that material and also we have to get it off the ‘research line.’ ”
“This law is really a two-year moratorium, so nobody can really build a factory,” he added. “We’re not going to make any jobs for two years.”
He noted his business also is handicapped since he’s competing against more than 30 other states producing hemp.
Clayton, who lives in a house made of the plant, might also feel like he’s fighting a state government that doesn’t really like the idea of commercializing cannabis.
One of the very first pockets of the proposed rules guiding the law states: “… the purpose of the Pilot Project is to cultivate, process, test, research, create, and market safe and commercial agricultural applications for Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa), which is a highly invasive plant species.”
Of course, the point of the meeting was to hear public concerns over drafted rules, and it was reiterated several times that the rules were merely a draft. Still, the inclusion of the word “invasive” in a rule outlining research to determine whether hemp is invasive would’ve likely irked any proponent – especially those with business interests.
“You start with that attitude, you don’t end up with success,” Clayton said.