Scott Burgett bends down and touches the leafy flower of the hemp plant, rubbing his fingers together.
“This is the cherry citrus,” Burgett said. “You can smell that the terpenes in it. If you just touch the plant, you can feel how sticky it is just like regular cannabis.”
To the casual observer, this hemp looks and smells just like marijuana. But it has less than 0.3 percent THC, the compound in marijuana that gets you high. That makes this crop federally legal under the 2018 farm bill.'
Burgett, with Green Earth Cannaceuticals, is growing 40,000 plants on 30 acres in the city of Bartow, halfway between Tampa and Orlando in Polk County. This is part of a test crop by the Florida Department of Agriculture to give farmers the tools and information they need to successfully grow hemp: What genetic strains grow well, how to fertilize the crop, how to keep the buds from growing fungus.
Citrus used to be the crop of choice on this 200 acre farm – until citrus greening decimated the trees. And the problem isn’t just isolated to one farm.
Polk County produces more citrus than anywhere else in Florida. But in the last decade, production has dropped by 70 percent in the county, and more than 15,000 acres of citrus farms are gone.
Hook-R Farms’ owner is looking at hemp as a crop that could bring the farm back. That’s because hemp isn’t as tightly regulated as medical marijuana. The crop can be grown outdoors in potentially huge quantities.
“There’s a lot of incredibly conservative people that wouldn’t have talked to me two years ago, that are now talking and looking at [hemp] as a viable industry,” said Burgett. “So a farmer, if you kept your costs to $15,000, you’re making $10,000 an acre. That’s a substantial crop for a farmer. You don’t get that growing corn or beans or cotton or tobacco.”
Lawmakers are looking at hemp as a possible replacement as well. But there are a lot of unknowns clouding the industry. What kinds of hemp seeds can farmers plant? What happens if a crop has too much THC?
Holly Bell is the Florida Department of Agriculture’s director of cannabis. She said the department has to follow the letter of the law on things like THC levels.
“And again, we can’t change the wording in that bill,” Bell said.”We have to just comply with it as a department.”
Growing the hemp is only half of the equation. Illinois just harvested its first hemp crop, but some farmers say they’re struggling to find companies to buy and process hemp into retail products.
That worries Kristin Dozier, a Leon County commissioner. Dozier has been hosting education workshops to try and get North Florida farmers interested in growing hemp – and to try and attract companies that process raw hemp into CBD oil and other products.
“That’s going to be critical,” Dozier said. “It’s why we’re seeing hemp wasted in other states this year because they didn’t have access to the processing facilities.”
Back at the hemp farm in Bartow, farm manager Jeff Joyce is stacking pallets of hemp flowers onto a trailer with a forklift. He’s got a team of more than a dozen temporary workers to harvest the first crop.
He leans out from the forklift and hollers to Scott Burgett.
“He wouldn’t have not half of this if not for the farm manager,” Joyce said, making Burgett laugh.
Joyce had retired after 40 years growing vegetables, strawberries and cantaloupes. Then the farm’s owner approached him about growing hemp.
“And we kind of thought that might be a good thing,” Joyce said. “So we’re giving it a try and see what happens.”
Soon, more Florida farmers will have the chance to give hemp a try, and see if it could be a viable alternative to citrus. Final rules from the Florida Department of Agriculture are due out any day now.