Farmers eager to learn about potential for hemp crop attend AgriBiz Expo in Florence

January 24, 2019 GMT

FLORENCE, S.C. — A new potentially profitable crop drew crowds at both industrial hemp breakout sessions at the S.C. AgriBiz & Farm Expo in Florence. Over 100 people filled the seats and stood in the back of the room to learn about the benefits and challenges of growing industrial hemp in South Carolina.

The 2014 farm bill defines industrial hemp as a cannabis strain with .03 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol. The crop has many uses including agricultural products, textiles, recycling, automotive parts, furniture, food and beverages, paper and construction materials. However, hemp production was federally prohibited until it was legalized with the passage of the farm bill in December 2018.

Over the past two years, industrial hemp production in South Carolina was limited to 20 farmers in 2017 and 40 in 2018 who were selected for the S.C. Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. However, in 2020, permits might be available to anyone who meets the qualifications.

S.C. Hemp Farmer Association executive director Lucas Snyder said the versatility of hemp offers numerous opportunities for farmers and entrepreneurs.

“Hemp was grown here as far back as the 1720s. Now that farmers can grow it again, we have the opportunity to rediscover a foundational crop in South Carolina,” Snyder said.

The new crop could also allow farmers to diversify their operations and establish another crop in their production rotation to reach different markets, said David DeWitt, state coordinator for new and emerging crops for Clemson Extension.

“Right now, farm income is not doing well, so industrial hemp might be an opportunity to replace some of the income that was lost to tobacco or other crops,” DeWitt said. “In our pilot program, we demonstrated that industrial hemp can be grown in South Carolina. We had traditional tobacco farmers, vegetable growers, and people who never grew before, and each production had some success. This is an opportunity for both small producers and large-scale operations.”

Currently, the most profitable product from hemp is cannabidiol. Oils and other products containing CBD usually do not contain THC and do not produce a “high.” DeWitt said farmers in South Carolina are attracted to the potentially high income from CBD production and could see increased growth over the next few years.

“There is a lot of interest and excitement surrounding the hemp industry, but this is not a get-rich-quick situation because the payments are slow in coming,” DeWitt said.

Currently, one of the biggest challenges right now for farmers growing CBD hemp is selling their crop. Since hemp was not grown for decades, processing facilities did not exist. Therefore, farmers who grow industrial hemp might have trouble finding a processing facility to buy their crop. Although hemp can also be grown for fiber or grain, the revenue is on par with other commodity crops, so farmers are not as interested in testing a new crop.

As farmers and processors explore how they fit in the industry, other entrepreneurs are also discovering new opportunities.

Ryan Wham, owner and cofounder of Carolina Kaneh Connection, said he combined a 20-year long career in heating, air conditioning and environmental control with a passion for plants to help build the first major hemp processing facility in South Carolina. Now, he is working with his partners to offer consulting, networking and testing services for hemp producers.

“With cultivation now opening up to growers, we need to start figuring out the rest of production. There are so many ancillary businesses to develop around hemp. We are learning everything we can to find how we best fit in the industry,” Wham said.

The whole industry has potential to grow and offer new opportunities, Snyder said.

“The industry in South Carolina has made a huge leap from last year to today. It’s a big industry and we want everyone who wants to be part of it to find a place. There’s been a lot of interest and we are working to open the industry up. As the ball continues to roll, we will have a flourishing industry with production and healthy competition. It’s an exciting time,” Snyder said.