A look into the various uses for hemp.
Marty Pearl/Louisville Courier Journal
Florida A&M University is officially in the mix of the state’s accelerated interest in establishing a commercial hemp industry that could change the agricultural landscape in North Florida and throughout the Sunshine State.
Agreements have been signed with three major companies with years of experience in other states that preceded Florida’s approval of hemp production during this year’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 Florida’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.
Cannabidiol or CBD 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.
“Like 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,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said. “Our 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.”
Planting the seeds
Charles Weatherford, interim vice president for research at Florida A&M University (Photo: Special to the Democrat)
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 team’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.
The rise of hemp in Florida:
In spring 2017, the state awarded FAMU – through its Division of Research – the lead role and funding for educating 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 operations 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 project involves researching and identifying strains that will “thrive safely, efficiently and cost effectively” in Florida in an effort to pioneer the possibility of making industrial hemp available as a viable new crop for Florida’s small and large scale farmers, said Tallahassee cannabis consultant and lobbyist Jeff Sharkey.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’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 there’s no apparent representative from FAMU.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks to the press during the North Florida session of the Hemp Rules Workshop at the R.A. Gray Building Monday, June 24, 2019. (Photo: Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)
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.
Ready, set, grow
“This 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,” Sharkey said, adding the company will collaborate with FAMU researchers throughout the process.
“Sunshine Hemp decided to move forward (with the FAMU model) because there is a lot of potential with research efforts,” he said.
The goal is to conduct research on what works best for seeds that are “grown here, tested here and most viable” to Florida’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 “having a culture of seeds available by January.”
Depending on how successful the St. Cloud crop proves to be, it is possible that Sunshine would work with FAMU to consider planting at the university’s farm in Quincy.
The value of ‘feminized seed production’
About 70 miles from Sunshine Hemp’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.
Burgett’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 FAMU’s position which would allow collaboration between the firm and researchers at the university.
“They are getting an incredible amount of research,” he said of FAMU. The company also will be paying the university a percentage of the sales.
“We come from a lot of commercial cannabis experience and I think we can give FAMU the benefit of our experience,” Burgett said.
“We are trying to help educate farmers in Florida on how to grow hemp,” he continued. “We are trying to determine which genetics will do best in Florida. We are making sure we are bringing the right plants for our farmers.”
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, Burgett said. If there are male plant in the field, the crop will be pollinated. If the female plant is pollinated, it will drastically slow cannabinoid production, and focus its energy into seed formation.
“We are using this field for feminized seed production,” he said of the Bartow location. “We 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.”
Burgett said planting at this time of the year will help determine how the plants will survive in Florida’s late summer climate.
Burgett said the company chose not to plant hemp seeds “because they are too tender and won’t handle the heat. The yield won’t be beneficial.”
“I think that’s going to be an incredible opportunity for about three years and then I think you will begin to see fiber production,” he said.
Leon County farming family involved
In September, planting will begin on 3 acres of the Henry Family Farms property in northern Leon County.
“We wanted to make sure some minority farmers get an opportunity to participate in this,” 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 Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences industrial hemp pilot project.
The family includes many graduates from Florida A&M.
“It is wonderful to be part of something that is good stuff for agriculture in the state of Florida,” he said. “Our family background makes it extra special.”
Jenkins said he is excited to see how the planting goes in northern Florida and what can be determined based on the pilot project.
“The data that’s going to be generated might be widely applied to other large-scale grow operations as well as small farms,” he said. “We hope that we will have a successful first harvest and many more thereafter.”
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.
“We 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,” Cincotta said.
Weatherford said once Fried’s office determines state guidelines, FAMU will seek applications for commercial hemp production.
“We are in the process of obtaining additional planting permits from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,” Weatherford said.
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at [email protected] or on Twitter @byrondobson.
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