A look into the various uses for hemp. Marty Pearl/Louisville Courier Journal
Florida A&M University is officially in the mix of the stateâ€™s accelerated interest in establishing a commercial hemp industry that could change the agriculturalÂ landscapeÂ in North Florida and throughout theÂ Sunshine State.
Agreements have been signed with three major companies with years of experience in other states that preceded Floridaâ€™s approval of hemp production during this yearâ€™s legislative session.
The partners are: Sunshine Hemp of St. Cloud, Florida, Green Earth Cannaceuticals, of Newberry, Florida, and Future Farm Technologies of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Florida A&M has created a team of professors and researchers who are representing the university in the project to determine which hemp varieties work best in Floridaâ€™s climate, soil preferences and best practices.
Industrial hemp involves the non-psychoactive species of cannabis and is not the same as medical cannabis. Hemp seed can be used for cooking; its fiber is used in clothes and its stalk used in paper products.
The big market is using hemp production for CBD oils.
Cannabidiol or CBDÂ oil has natural anti-anxiety effects, anti-seizure effects, anti-tumor effects, anti-inflammatory effects and can be used to battle a host of mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.
â€śLike our Medical Marijuana Educational and Research Initiative, our industrial hemp partnerships offer Florida A&M University an opportunity for education, research and innovation in a fledgling industry,â€ť FAMU President Larry Robinson said. â€śOur outstanding students, faculty and staff will contribute to the success of this initiative, which will benefit our industry partners along with Florida farmers and citizens.â€ťÂ
Charles Weatherford, interim vice president for research at FAMU, has appointed Stephen Leong, associate dean and research director, College of Agriculture and Food Sciences, to head up the project for the university.
The contracted partners will be doing the actual planting. FAMU benefits by becoming the repository for research, receiving pay for its teamâ€™s travel and time and providing hands-on internships for students.
In 2017, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program legislation allowing FAMU and the University of Florida to pursue public private partnerships to research hemp.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, allows for both universities to develop pilot projects to cultivate, process, test, research, create and market safe commercial applications for industrial hemp.
FAMUâ€™s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program is separate from its MedicalÂ MarijuanaÂ Education and Research Initiative, whichÂ recently saw its director ousted.
The rise of hemp in Florida:
In spring 2017, the state awarded FAMU â€“ through its Division of Research â€“ the lead role and funding for educatingÂ minority populations statewide about the potential benefits of medical marijuana and the pitfalls of smoking illegal pot.
The state’s approval of the hemp research programs did not provide start-up money.
The University of Florida opted to conducts its research and growing operationsÂ in-house through its Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and to conduct plantings and research on properties it owns throughout Florida, including Quincy, where planting already is underway.
The UF/IFAS project is underwritten by a $1.3 million sponsorship by Florida-based Green Roads, along with other supporting entities.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in mid-July approved the first Hemp Planting permit for Florida A&M and Sunshine Hemp, making it the first such agreement in the state.
The permit allows for Sunshine Hemp to cultivate, test and produce certified hemp seeds acclimated to Floridaâ€™s climate and soils.
Sunshine Hemp plans to develop a state-of-the-art industrial hemp operation, research and testing facility on a 10-acreÂ agricultural site in St. Cloud, as well as other sites in Florida.
The project involves researching and identifying strains that will â€śthrive safely, efficiently and cost effectivelyâ€ť in Florida in an effort to pioneer the possibility of making industrial hemp available as a viable new crop for Floridaâ€™s small and large scale farmers, said Tallahassee cannabis consultant and lobbyist Jeff Sharkey.
Sharkey, who helped write legislation signed this spring by Gov. Ron DeSantis opening the doors to full-blown hemp production in Florida, is a partner in Sunshine Hemp.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Friedâ€™s office is working on guidelines that should be ready this fall for hemp research and production.
She recently appointed a 20-member Hemp Advisory Committee. It includes a post-doctoral research scientist working with the UF/IFAS project, but thereâ€™s no apparent representative from FAMU.
Fried predicts hemp could be a $10 billion or $20 billion industry, bigger than medical marijuana, which is already doing more than $1 billion in sales in Florida.
There is a huge market for CBD consumption, and limitless possibilities for industrial opportunities and replacements for plastics, paper, Styrofoam and concrete, Fried said in June.
Sharkey said Sunshine Hemp has seed planting underway in St. Cloud and the company plans to have certified seeds available for Florida farmers by early spring for the first major hemp growing season.
â€śThis is the first research permit awarded to a public-private partnership where Sunshine Hemp will manage the research on its land and cultivate and certify seeds for sale to Florida growers,â€ť Sharkey said, adding the company will collaborate with FAMU researchers throughout the process.
â€śSunshine Hemp decided to move forward (with the FAMU model) because there is a lot of potential with research efforts,â€ť he said.
The goal is to conduct research on what works best for seeds that are â€śgrown here, tested here and most viableâ€ť to Floridaâ€™s climate, rather than having farmers use seeds from states like Kentucky or Oregon that have not been vetted in Florida.
The company also plans to create mechanized harvest equipment along with crop drying and stabilizing biomass storage.
Sharkey said this short phase of testing will run now through October with a goal of â€śhaving a culture of seeds available by January.â€ť
Depending on how successful the St. Cloud cropÂ proves to be, it is possible that Sunshine would work with FAMU to consider planting at the universityâ€™s farm in Quincy.
About 70 miles from Sunshine Hempâ€™s operations in St. Cloud, Scott Burgett, founder and CEO of Green Earth Cannaceuticals, has begun planting on 30 acres in Bartow, making it the largest single hemp research plot in the state.
Burgettâ€™s company also plans to begin plantings at a location in northern Leon County, and three locations in Alachua County, including a nursery site in Gainesville.
Burgett said he was attracted to FAMUâ€™s position which would allow collaboration between the firm and researchers at the university.
â€śThey are getting an incredible amount of research,â€ť he said of FAMU. The company also will be paying the university a percentage of the sales.
â€śWe come from a lot of commercial cannabis experience and I think we can give FAMU the benefit of our experience,â€ť Burgett said.
â€śWe are trying to help educate farmers in Florida on how to grow hemp,â€ť he continued. â€śWe are trying to determine which genetics will do best in Florida. We are making sure we are bringing the right plants for our farmers.â€ť
In Bartow, the firm is planting “clones”, a vegetative cutting that has been rooted, which assures that the plants are all female.
All plants grown for CBD oil extraction should be female plants, BurgettÂ said. If there are male plant in the field, the crop will be pollinated.Â If the female plant is pollinated, it will drastically slow cannabinoid production, and focus its energy into seed formation.
â€śWe are using this field for feminized seed production,â€ť he said of the Bartow location. â€śWe take a field of female plants, and selectively stress plants to cause hermaphrodites. These hermaphrodites will produce pollen containing only female chromosomes. The resulting seeds should produce only female plants.â€ť
Burgett said planting at this time of the year will help determine how the plants will survive in Floridaâ€™s late summer climate.
Burgett said the company chose not to plant hemp seeds â€śbecause they are too tender and wonâ€™t handle the heat. The yield wonâ€™t be beneficial.â€ť
Instead, the company is using the clones to see how well they produce and how beneficial they can be in growing plants that can used to produce CBD oil.
â€śI think thatâ€™s going to be an incredible opportunity for about three years and then I think you will begin to see fiber production,” he said.
In September, planting will begin on 3 acres of the Henry Family Farms property in northern Leon County.
â€śWe wanted to make sure some minority farmers get an opportunity to participate in this,â€ť Burgett said of Green Earth Cannaceuticals, which is run by veterans with disabilities.
Jimmy Jenkins, a Tallahassee attorney and member of the Henry family, said the multi-generational operation represents the only private farm in the area participating in the project.
Jenkins also serves on the advisory committee for the University of Floridaâ€™s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences industrial hemp pilot project.
The family includes many graduates from Florida A&M.
â€śIt is wonderful to be part of something that is good stuff for agriculture in the state of Florida,â€ť he said. â€śOur family background makes it extra special.â€ť
Jenkins said he is excited to see how the planting goes in northern Florida and what can be determined based on the pilot project.
â€śThe data thatâ€™s going to be generated might be widely applied to other large-scale grow operations as well as small farms,â€ť he said.Â “We hope that we will have a successful first harvest and many more thereafter.â€ť
Future Farm Technologies has proposed to conduct soil analysis in association with FAMU staff, according to a release.
Jim Cincotta, managing member of FFT Holding, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Future Farm Technologies, said the firm and FAMU now are in the process of seeking planting permits.
â€śWe only have 8 vacant acres in Apopka which functions as a foliage nursery, so we will germinate in our greenhouses in Apopka and when plants are approximately 12 inches high, transfer to Quincy or Brooksville to be planted in the ground,â€ť Cincotta said.
Weatherford said once Friedâ€™s office determines state guidelines, FAMU will seek applications for commercial hemp production.
â€śWe are in the process of obtaining additional planting permits from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,â€ť Weatherford said.
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at email@example.com or on Twitter @byrondobson.
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