The Apalachee Regional Planning Council has a $65 million plan to use once-illicit hemp, now freed by the 2018 Farm Bill, to grow a North Florida manufacturing base anchored in Tallahassee.
Florida A&M University and University of Florida scientists are in search of suitable seeds at their Gadsden County facilities.
And money from a U.S. Department of Commerce Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, could provide the "fertilizer" needed for the idea to succeed.
The planning council's bid for one of 50 regional challenge grants seeks to revitalize the economy of nine counties surrounding Tallahassee that have yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008-09 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.
While there is money to assist a timber industry, and to enhance aquaculture and grain production, the linchpin of the proposal is a $9.5 million request to build an industrial hemp processing facility.
Hemp fiber can be used to make insulation, drywall, furniture, and clothing.
“We’re calling it farm to trade,” said Leon County Commissioner Kristen Dozier, who chairs the ARPC, about the initiative.
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The council’s board is composed of two elected officials and one gubernatorial appointee from each of the nine counties surrounding Tallahassee. The Legislature created 10 of them in 1980 to partner local governments with business to enhance an area’s economic, social, and natural environments.
The Build Back Better challenge submission outlines a spoke-and-wheel model to connect farmers, businesses, and entrepreneurs in the outlying counties to university research, technology and other expertise provided by FAMU and Innovation Park in Tallahassee.
The proposal targets money to improve the infrastructure agricultural needs, such as transportation and distribution, capital to launch a revolving loan program for entrepreneurs, and to establish an agriculture commercialization hub at FAMU, but the heart of it is a facility to mine hemp stalks for fiber to be used to manufacture consumer goods.
“Hemp could be the key to transforming our region,” said APRC executive director Chris Rietow. He said, because hemp can be used to manufacture 25,000 different products, it is more than just a crop.
"Hemp is going to be the future,” he added.
He is intrigued by job creation rooted in hemp rippling across the economy into the farming, transportation, manufacturing, and retail sectors.
Business analysts predict the U.S. industrial hemp market to grow by at least 20% in the next five years to nearly $15 billion and then possibly double within a decade after that.
The market barely existed before approval of the 2018 federal Farm Bill which removed hemp from the statutory definition of marijuana and allowed for commercial cultivation.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (that's how they spelled it) all but eliminated a hemp market in the U.S. and the development of its fibers to replace wood as a source for paper, cotton to weave into fabrics and a wide range of products including fiberglass, insulation and plaster.
Previous coverage of hemp in North Florida:
Recreating the lost hemp industry
Conspiracists have a variety of theories of the timber and paper industries viewing the plant as a threat and recruiting politicians to demagogue it as an evil weed.
Ironically, as the federal government moved towards taxing and regulating hemp out of existence, Popular Mechanics magazine declared it “The Billion-Dollar Crop,” with photos of clothes made of the plant and lush Texas fields of hemp.
“We had this knowledge at one point, and we not only forgot what hemp was used for, but we also lost the seed stock ... That’s what is in development right now, reclaiming the knowledge and developing the seed stock,” Dozier said.
Dozier is among a group of younger policymakers, researchers, and entrepreneurs captivated by hemp’s potential to grow into a multi-billion-dollar commodity and provide environmentally sustainable material for clothing, manufacturing, and construction.
The first obstacle for hemp promoters is identifying the seed stock that will thrive in the Florida climate.
UF has identified more than 30 for testing in Florida, while FAMU identified and developed the first industrial-grade hemp seeds to be approved by the Florida Department of Agriculture for cultivation in Florida.
Federal law dictates the plant must be destroyed if it contains more than 0.3% of delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in marijuana at higher levels.
The second hurdle is the knowledge gap Dozier mentioned in a market context — the re-establishment of a hemp market so it makes sense, financially, to grow it.
Josh Freeman, an associate professor of horticulture who works out of UF’s North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, said most of the seeds tested in a two-year pilot program that ended in 2020 performed well.
“So it’s not that there is one magic variety that grows well in North Florida,” Freeman said. “But it is also not like corn or soybeans or peanuts or cotton, where you take it to a local gin (that's) the established buying and selling point.”
Freeman and others describe hemp as a commodity in a stabilization phase after an initial rush of interest in CBD oils and supplements.
Now that there is more data available for farmers and entrepreneurs, interest is growing in the potential hemp fibers hold for consumer products.
“If a market is established for them, producers could absolutely successfully grow hemp here. There’s no doubt about that,” Freeman said.
Jacksonville company sees hemp as sustainable building block
Brianna Kilcullen is betting that farmers and businesses will find that Freeman is right and will establish a market for hemp to flourish as a manufacturing commodity.
Two years ago, after a decade of working in the textile industry with Under Armour and Columbia Sportswear, Kilcullen created Anact, a Jacksonville company that makes and sells bath towels made from hemp.
She set up shop with an eye on Florida’s hospitality and tourism industry but imports her hemp from China and weaves the towels in Georgia. Anact posted more than $100,000 in sales in its first year.
Kilcullen said the supply chain crisis has hampered business this year and highlights how the U.S. has “outsourced the entire textile industry.”
She is working with the Cannabis Office of the Florida Department of Agriculture to find a Florida hemp supplier and start to rebuild the U.S. textile industry.
The department has issued 748 cultivation permits in 65 counties. In October, there were 90 pilot projects cultivating nearly 500 acres of hemp in Florida.
“The future is to manufacture as close to the markets as possible,” Kilcullen said.
In a discussion of her interest in hemp, the 33-year-old Kilcullen said less water is used to make her towels than those of other fabrics. And she can look across the country and see hemp as an environmentally sustainable building block for other industries.
Hemp projects around the U.S.
Eric Hurlock hosts the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast. He’s been on the hemp beat for Lancaster Farming, an agricultural weekly newspaper focused on farming in the Mid-Atlantic region, since 2017.
Hurlock took a six-week road trip last summer to view hemp projects in 15 states from Pennsylvania to Washington state. In Kentucky, he met Greg Wilson, owner of HempWood, a company that presses hemp fiber into floor planks, paneling and furniture.
In Colorado, he stopped at Silver Mountain Hemp Guitars in Fort Collins, where Morris Beegle makes not just guitar bodies from hemp fibers, but also the acoustic cones for speakers.
At Fort Benton, Montana, Hurlock toured a new plant capable of processing five tons of hemp per hour into fiber for use as textiles, insulation, and plastic.
His final stop was back In Pennsylvania, at a project in New Castle where a home’s insulation, floors and walls are being replaced with materials made from hemp. The town is trying to lure a hemp manufacturer, he said.
“When it comes to hemp, your processing and your manufacturing plants need to be relatively close to where the crop is grown because it is light and fluffy and expensive to ship,” Hurlock said.
Hurlock’s National Hemp Tour showed how the 2018 Farm Bill opened what he called a flood gate of interest in the plant.
“If you got the farm fields and investment in processing and manufacturing it could become really exciting," Hurlock said. "If consumers want their goods grown and manufactured by their own community, it could set up a whole new economy.”
Hemp proposed as Florida job creator, economy booster
North Florida’s need for a new economy is what Rietow tried to explain to the U.S. Department of Commerce in the BBB challenge grant application.
He lists the 2008 recession, Hurricane Michael and a coronavirus-induced economic crisis as a trio of punches that has the region staggering. The poverty rate in the nine counties of the APRC is 36% above the state average, 17.3% to 12.7%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Tallahassee has an economic engine (state government and higher education) and then you got these eight very rural counties that are really struggling,” Rietow said.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has endorsed the project as a job creator in an emerging field.
"This proposal would especially create opportunity in communities that have not always fully benefited from prior economic growth, including the state’s only majority-Black county,” Fried said in a letter to the Commerce Department, singling out Gadsden County, where cotton and tobacco reigned last century.
Rietow should know in March or April whether the APRC bid passes a "Phase One" review and qualifies for a $500,000 grant to further develop its proposal for final acceptance.
Landing a processing plant would be what Rietow calls the first domino to the fall in the economic development plan. Finding the seed stock for industrial fiber that can be grown for profit in North Florida is job No. 2.
It’s what Matthew Mizereck is working on out of an office on FAMU’s Tallahassee campus.
The 29-year-old Tallahassee native is a hemp project plant site monitor. He earned an anthropology degree at Florida State University but hemp lured him away from his field of study.
He works with farmers on test trials and was part of the group to chaperone six different seeds varieties through the state approval process for cultivation.
"For my generation, it hasn't been drilled into our brain this is the devil's lettuce and there's a lot of really good things about this plant, especially when it comes to taking care of the planet," Mizereck said about how hemp fibers can be used to make a biodegradable plastic.
The hemp riddle Mizereck is trying to solve involves a lack of sunlight.
If exposed to less than 12 hours of sunlight a day, the hemp plant turns from growing taller to flowering, at three to four feet in height. A profitable height to harvest industrial fiber is six to eight feet.
North Florida averages about three weeks of 14 hours of sunlight a day annually. That is enough time for a plant to reach eight feet but not long enough to make hemp economically competitive.
“We’re going to have to find a way to breed certain genetics to where they don’t flower until like 15 hours,” Mizereck said. “That is something we’re going to have to figure out.”
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Federal money could expedite hemp production in North Florida