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Hemp risk and reward: Regional meeting shows high interest in newly legal crop

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If attendance is an indicator, interest among growers in the new hemp commodity is high.

About 150 farmers and other interested people from Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties filled the East Carolina Ag and Education Center in Rocky Mount for a regional hemp production meeting Tuesday.

“We have certainly got a new commodity for our area and there is a lot of interest and a lot of unknowns in this commodity,” said Norman Harrell, director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County. “With the signing of the farm bill last fall, it deregulated this commodity as a Schedule 1 narcotic. That has certainly opened it up some.”

Cooperative Extension agents hosted the meeting to provide information on regulation and production.

“I guess in over 30 years of working with agriculture with the department, I have never seen anything with this kind of interest and I have been all over the state talking to a lot of folks,” said Phil Wilson, director of the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s plant industry division.

Industrial hemp is cannabis sativa variety with a tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, concentration of 0.3 percent or less.

“It’s being grown for the fiber and it is also being grown for the food, which is the seed in the oil but the primary thing we are seeing in North Carolina right now is that it is being grown for the floral parts, which is for the production of CBD,” Wilson said.

The North Carolina Hemp Commission verifies and processes industrial hemp applications, collects license fees and samples crops in the field and in greenhouses to make sure they are not above the limit.

In 2017, some 135 samples were tested and 14 were found to be above .3 percent. In 2018, 437 hemp samples and were tested and 47 were above the limit.

“Right now that is a big job, trying to keep up with the interest that is being generated in the state,” Wilson said.

Currently, participants in the industrial hemp program in North Carolina include 585 industrial hemp growers. There are 7,289 licensed field acres and some 3,250,094 square feet of licensed greenhouse space for hemp production, Wilson said.

People with felonies in the last 10 years are not eligible to gain certification. Anyone with a felony drug arrest at any time in the past is not eligible to obtain a license.

“We have to be able to regulate this industry and at the very outset, it was decided that we wanted to gear this toward the farming industry,” Wilson said.

GPS location of hemp production and storage facilities is required.

“If it’s in our program, I can verify it. If you’ve got something planted out there and it’s not in our system, it’s illegal marijuana and they can destroy it,” Wilson said. “That has happened multiple times in North Carolina where people did not update their information and unfortunately, they lost.”

Compliance with the rules is very strict.

“I’ve been asked to bend them, break them, overlook them and I’m not going to do that,” Wilson said. “You have got to make sure that you are meeting those rules and they are fairly straightforward. If you have questions, call us.”

“You have to learn a lot when you are trying to grow this plant,” Wilson said.

Hemp production is not like cotton, corn or soybeans. There are no permitted herbicides or pesticides allowed for the plants.

Hemp producers need to treat it similar to food or drug production.

Wilson said in 2018, someone consumed hemp and became ill.

“Someone purchased it and they got sick. When that happens, we have to go out and do an investigation. It was being produced in a home. When we got there, there were two dogs in the home and there were two pigs walking through the house,” Wilson said. “You are liable to see anything. Now our food and drug division is starting to do inspections and that sort of thing.”

Angela Post, a small grains extension specialist with the N.C. Cooperative Extension, told attendees there’s a lot to be learned with hemp.

Post suggested that growers spread out their risk by planting several varieties of hemp to avoid the possibility that one strain tests above the maximum THC level and the entire crop is destroyed.

“There is no reason you can’t plant 10 row of this, 10 rows of that and 10 rows of that,: Post said. “If you spread your risk that way, you should still be able to make money.”

Hemp seed can be expensive at $1 per seed.

There is a 40 to 60 percent decrease in germination rate in seed stored for a year.

“It’s very fickle seed,” Post said.

Post suggests that farmers sell their crop when they have the opportunity to sell it for a profit.

“We have a lot of farmers who are setting up processing facilities and some farmers who are joining together in cooperatives to create processing facilities. If you are going to do it, do it right,” Post said.

“I heard many more happy, successful growers in 2018 than I heard sad and crying growers in 2018 over hemp.”

Donnie Harris, a Wilson County landowner, came out to hear the program.

“My family was a tobacco grower in Wilson. We used to grow flue-cured tobacco.” Harris said. “Right now it sounds really interesting, but there is a lot of costs. The cost is really what concerns me especially when there is not the possibility of having any crop insurance. That would be my last question: Can we get federal crop insurance?”

Right now Harris said he is gathering information on hemp but he intends to apply for his certification as a grower.

“We have pasture that we want to convert,” Harris said. “The information is going to be definitely important for us to get out here and find out what is available and how can we participate and hopefully see a lot more minorities to learn more about the opportunities that this crop may present for landowners and farmers also.”

Harris wants to convert his flue-cured tobacco barns for hemp production.

“My father Jesse Harris, he is 90 years old this year,” Harris said. “He has seen a lot of changes in agriculture. We have come from sharecroppers to renters to land owners and trying to continue the agricultural part of the family operation.”

Tyler Lamm of Sims, part of Lamm Farms Partnership, is looking at hemp as a possibility.

“We’re going to try to get some more information if we can. We ain’t going to jump into it headfirst. We’re going to probably get our feet wet a little bit before we decide what we’re going to do,” Lamm said. “I thought it was very informative. It has cleared up a lot of fog is basically what it’s done. Before you put money into it, you want to make sure that it’s going to work for you and your farm. We grow tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, soybean and wheat. We are a very diverse operation but we are trying to find a way to be more sustainable for the future.”

Harrell said there is the potential for a lot of rewards with the new hemp opportunities.

“But the reward is going to come with a lot of risk,” Harrell said.

For more on fees and regulations and other information, visit www.ncagr.gov/hemp/ or call Wilson at 919-707-3756 or Post at 919-515-5824. The best email to reach the hemp commission is industrialhemprequests@ncagr.gov.