| The Gainesville Sun
Brian Pearson comes home from work smelling like 1969 Woodstock. His clothes, body and hair carry the recognizable scent of weed, hashish, marijuana, cannabis, hemp: many names for the one plant he oversees.
As a University of Florida assistant professor of crop management and leader of the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, he has run the state’s first research program on legalized hemp, the same exact plant as the illegal Schedule 1 drug marijuana.
What’s the difference? The level of one key compound: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the agent responsible for marijuana’s high. Hemp, by Florida’s definition, has less than 0.3% THC. And it is gearing up to become the state’s next agricultural giant.
Successful hemp crops can be used for a wide variety of products, according to Holly Bell, cannabis director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Some are for human consumption, like popular CBD gummies. Others use hemp oils for beauty products or pain relief. And even more can be made from biodegradable hemp fiber, like clothing, paper, towels, animal bedding and new form of concrete called ‘hempcrete.’
“It’s endless. There’s really no part of this plant that then goes wasted,” she said. “This isn’t about getting high. That’s not what this plan is about, but it’s where everybody’s mind goes to immediately, usually.”
A crash course in U.S. hemp history
Hemp has a complex history.
It was one of the first seeds European settlers brought to North America and was grown in the U.S. until the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, when legislators banned it because of its psychoactive twin, marijuana, Bell said.
Years later, the 2014 Farm Bill federally approved hemp once more for growth in pilot programs, leaving specific regulations up to each state. Florida’s Legislature did not jump on the bandwagon until 2017, after watching other states like Oregon and Colorado lead the way, she said.
In March 2019, the first state research permit was awarded to the University of Florida, kicking off a two-year hemp pilot project for scientists to study hemp viability in various Florida environments, planting and cropping needs, potential as an invasive species and more.
Now, reaching the end of permit 001, UF has a $40 public workshop available online until Nov. 1 to present its findings and advise growers as well as a new cultivar approval system to help hemp breeders verify that their genetics meet state laws so plants deemed safe can hit the market, said Jerry Fankhauser, assistant director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station and lead oversight manager for the pilot project.
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Just because the first two years of work are wrapping up, it does not mean the research is over. Scientists have lost decades of growth insight on hemp from the federal period of prohibition, he said, and just like any other plant, hemp will constantly be studied and evolved to better fit human and environmental needs.
“It’s a fascinating plant; it’s a fascinating crop to work with. But we’ve got to continue to do the science,” he said. “We don’t want to see hemp become invasive and end up in our ditches and canals and beautiful resources here in the state of Florida.”
What comes next?
Approval is, accordingly, the latest step in Florida’s heavily managed hemp industry. Though UF is not the only university pilot program testing the legality of hemp varieties, it is one affordable option for anyone with $100 who can meet the application criteria, Pearson said.
UF opened its approval program to the public Feb. 9, but a prior beta run to test its setup was highly successful, he said. Using the same specific environmental conditions for each plant, all but one of 22 hemp varieties passed with less than 0.3% THC.
“I’m proud of it,” Pearson said. “I feel like a kid on Christmas morning: all excited. To see it from cradle to grave, I was really happy.”
Interested breeders must prove ownership of their cultivars before shipping 20 plant cuttings to UF’s program partner Roseville Farms, which houses and grows the hemp.
Upon arrival, the cultivars are rooted for three weeks, grown further for five weeks and flowered for four weeks before being harvested and sent to an independent, federally certified lab where THC levels are measured, Pearson said.
Fifteen cultivars can be grown at one time through the program, each lasting 12 weeks in the same highly controlled indoor nursery environment. By keeping factors like light and humidity the same for each plant, scientists ensure that the hemp genetics are the only variable responsible for THC levels, he said.
If they come back with a legal THC amount, he said, UF signs off on the paperwork and passes the cultivar along to FDACS, where a final review ensures testing was properly completed before the cultivar is added to the state’s approved list. From there, any licensed grower can contact an individual breeder on the list and buy seeds or cuttings to plant.
To prevent research congestion and accommodate as many interested people as possible, Pearson said, UF is staggering trials and asking individual breeders to submit no more than four hemp varieties.
David Raab, owner of Roseville Farms in Apopka, is both assisting UF with the approval program and nurturing his own hemp crop from one of the already legal varieties. As a farmer, he said, the thorough research and verification enforced by the state is incredibly important.
No grower, big or small, wants to invest his or her money in a crop that is lost in the end because it turns out to be illegal. So approval, despite the extra time required, is a worthwhile protection in his mind.
Growers, harvests on rise
“If you don’t start with good genetics, you’ll never have a good plant no matter what you do or how good of a farmer you are,” Raab said. “You don’t want these little guys who can least afford this to end up having to burn their crop. I think the future of the industry is much more solid and much more positive because of the pilot programs.”
When managed correctly, hemp is lucrative. While Bell did not provide a specific number, she said the plant’s income for the state is expected to increase exponentially by double digits each year of continued industry investment and expansion.
As of Feb. 23, there were 776 hemp grower licenses covering 23,256 acres of agricultural land in Florida and 350 harvests across 271 acres, said Bryan Benson, deputy director of the FDACS Division of Plant Industry.
And as of Monday, the state hemp approval list held seven seeds and five clones, not including the 21 varieties approved by UF, which have not yet been uploaded.
This is just the beginning, Bell said.
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