Hemp: North Carolina’s Budding Industry
The North Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is ending. Since it began in 2014, approximately 1,500 licensed hemp growers and more than 1,200 registered processors have come on the scene in North Carolina.
Effective Jan. 1, 2022, all hemp production in North Carolina must comply with the USDA Domestic Hemp Production Rule and farmers must hold a USDA-issued hemp license.
On this episode of Farms, Food and You, we talk to NC State Extension specialist David Suchoff about what we learned during the pilot program about growing hemp, this budding industry, and its roadblocks.
The North Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is ending.
Since it began in 2014, approximately 1,500 licensed hemp growers and more than 1,200 registered processors have come on the scene in North Carolina.
Effective January 1st, 2022, all hemp production in North Carolina must comply with the USDA Domestic Hemp Production Rule and farmers must hold a USDA-issued hemp license.
On this episode of Farms, Food and You we talk to NC State Extension specialist David Suchoff about what we learned during the pilot program about growing hemp, this budding industry, and its roadblocks.
With the 2018 Farm Bill clearing the way legally, many farmers in North Carolina began cultivating industrial hemp. Hemp has more than 50,000 uses between the stalk, roots, leaves, flowers and seed. Farmers took to their fields and greenhouses to grow three varieties:
· floral — cannabinoid hemp varieties primarily grown to extract CBD used as a nutritional, pharmaceutical and dietary supplement.
· fiber which is used for textiles, pulp/paper, and fuel;
· finally grain which is used for food and nutrition.
NC State Extension played a major role in researching floral hemp over the past few years. David Suchoff explains:
So if we’re focusing first on floral hemp, the research that we do, we try to address some of the key questions or issues that our farmers have. You know, the question that always comes up, especially with the new crop is which variety do I plant? And so one thing that we do is we do variety trials, and this is another one where we do it in, in the different regions, because we want to understand if there’s differences in how the varieties, you know, produce or perform in one region versus another. And so there, we’re just developing, um, good data to get to our growers in terms of recommendations for, you know, if you live in the coastal plain, you should grow a variety X because it produces this much. And so on. Um, other research that we’ve been conducting is looking at developing a better understanding of THC production in the field.
THC production is vital for growers to understand because of laws in North Carolina limiting the amount of THC in CBD products.
So, you know, under the law, hemp is cannabis sativa that produces less than 0.3 total THC. If the crop is tested and it goes above that it’s considered non-compliant and it has to be destroyed or remediated, which is something that the USDA is going to require.
And it doesn’t take a lot to go over .3 percent THC. You know, when we first got started, there weren’t a lot of recommendations in terms of when you should harvest the crop. And, what we know is that the longer you let the crop flower you know produce flowers, the higher the THC goes. And so we have been doing field research to kind of get an understanding of the temporal relationship of THC production, so that we could say, Hey, you know, harvest your crop four weeks after flowering. And that’s usually what we’re seeing.
You can wait about four to five weeks after flowering. If you wait any longer, it’s going to go above 0.3%, total THC.
Suchoff and his field team also did research trials about when to start planting and how many plants per acre to grow. They found that farmers had great success planting in early May and planting as densely as possible. The result: growers did such a good job that the market saturated and many farmers couldn’t sell their crops.
It was really in 2018 and 2019, people were told that, you know, we’ll buy all the hemp you grow and you’re going to get a great price for it. And the prices were very, very good. But I think one of the issues was that, well, there are a couple of issues. First, the processors didn’t really have a good understanding of what the actual demand was for CBD products. Two, I don’t think they realized how well people would grow the crop in the sense that the yields would be so high. And so what happened was we just, you know, it’s basically economics where we had a gross oversupply and the demand just wasn’t there. And so the price for raw material, floral hemp, collapsed and that bubble burst. And so we have farmers that are still holding on to material that they grew in 2018 and 2019 that they can’t sell because they can’t find someone to purchase it.
Another hurdle for hemp growers and producers in North Carolina: the legality of hemp products. 16 states have approved marijuana for recreational use and 36 states have legalized the medical use of marijuana.
North Carolina Senate Bill 711, the NC Compassionate Care Act, which would legalize marijuana for medical use, will likely come to a vote in early 2022.
We’ve been keeping an eye on that medical marijuana bill. Um, last I heard they’re, they’re waiting to pass a state budget first, and then they’ll address this bill later. Um, and this is another one, honestly, it has pretty broad bipartisan support within the state. Um, now, if you read through the proposed bill, it’s pretty strict in terms of how many individuals can grow the crop. So this is not going to be like every tobacco farmer growing marijuana. It’s going to be, I think, limited to 10 producers at first. I’d have to look back at it. Um, but it’s going to be very restrictive, both in terms of who can use medical marijuana, but also who can produce it. But, you know, once again, I mean, it’s still another crop that I’m hoping some people will be able to at least profit off of to, to, to grow and meet that demand.
Being able to effectively grow hemp, but not find a stable market for it has been a disappointment to growers and producers alike.
Tobacco remains North Carolina’s top producing cash crop. And it seemed that hemp could join the ranks with potential to create an economic boon for North Carolina producers. But it’s not that simple.
“There’s no silver bullet in agriculture. And it’s very much a system. And so we’ve got our parts, you know, you’ll be a sweet potato grower that also grow Sesame and corn and Hemp and whatnot. It’s not just, I’m a hemp farmer, I’m a Sesame farmer. Um, so we’ll see. I mean, it’d be great if, you know, we found the next big thing. We figured out that we can all grow truffle mushrooms and everyone’s making hundreds of thousand dollars per acre. But yeah. And, you know, I think there’s a, a lot of people talk about, well, what’s going to be the next tobacco for North Carolina and, you know, the longer I’m in this position and the more that I interact with farmers, I try to push against that just because, you know, tobacco has such a huge influence on our state’s history and economy that I don’t think any crop will ever be what tobacco will be to North Carolina historically speaking.”
But there is still a path forward for hemp in North Carolina. The global industrial hemp market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.2 percent from and reach an excess of $12.01 billion by 2028. Fashion houses like Armani, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have exhibited hemp collections. Patagonia and Nike also have pilot programs in hemp activewear.
Suchoff and his research team are already conducting field experiments with fiber hemp across the state, discovering which varieties grow best at North Carolina’s latitude and its growing season. Extension is also helping those who want to continue to grow hemp make the shift to the USDA license requirements.
The first thing that we’re doing is we are trying to both train agents, as well as, you know, give our extension talks to farmers about the, um, process of obtaining a USDA license. Um, so we’ve got information both on our extension web portal, which farmers regularly use, but then as I mentioned, we’ll be going around to the different counties and talking about how you go about to get the, um, uh, license. Fortunately, it’s actually not that hard to get a license. There’s not a whole lot that has to be done in terms of lots of different paperwork. It’s a pretty easy to use system. Um, you know, one of the big differences that farmers will note is that with the USDA license, you have to obtain an FBI background check, which was not, uh, something that had to be done for the NCDA program. So that is something that’s a little bit new.
To those who wish to continue with hemp or break into the business, Suchoff is cautiously optimistic.
SUCHOFF: My advice to farmers, especially those that are growing hemp is first and foremost, just make sure you’ve got a market. Contact your local, your local representative. You know, a lot of this has to do with, with laws and both here in the state, but also primarily when we’re talking about national laws, as it pertains to, as I mentioned, how CBD can be sold and used.
Thank you for joining us on Farms, Food and You. This podcast is a product of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. If you would like to support the show, please share this episode on social media and leave a review on your podcasting app of choice. We’d love to hear from you. Talk soon!