In October, North Carolina lawmakers legalized industrial hemp. Not to be confused with its sister plant marijuana, hemp has many uses for commercial products, which North Carolina farmers are excited about. Sarah Finch has more on the state’s new hemp pilot program.
Hemp refers to a specific strain of Cannabis plants that are grown from a seed and can reach up to 15 feet tall. Although the word cannabis often brings to mind images of ‘smoking pot’ or ‘getting high’, hemp plants contain very little of the psychoactive chemical called THC.
North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association spokesperson Claudia Townsend explains the difference.
“Hemp and marijuana are within the same family, but they have really different growing attributes.”
For hundreds of years, hemp plants have been bred specifically for a variety of purposes. It is an incredibly versatile agricultural crop that can be used in a wide range of applications from clothing and medicine to building materials and paper products, which makes it an appealing commodity for eastern North Carolina farmers.
“The great thing is, hemp can be used for food, fuel and fiber, and within those 3 basic categories there are 25 thousand different products that can be made out of hemp.”
It is already legal to process hemp in North Carolina into any of its thousands of derivative products. But for decades, North Carolinians have been forbidden to grow hemp. Instead, local companies have relied upon neighboring states and other countries for their hemp supply.
“There were 77 years of prohibition and a pretty good media campaign to put that stigma in place. So it has taken a lot of education to move past that.”
Before the prohibition, hemp was a legal and fundamental crop in North Carolina for almost 200 years. And the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association thinks it will again be a huge economic boost for our region.
North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Assistant General Counsel Jon Lanier says it’s too soon to speculate on the economic profitability of a Tarheel hemp industry.
“Absolutely you’re looking at billions and billions of dollars as far as an industry here in the state. So anything that can be legally grown and can make a good return for a farmer, you know that’s a good thing.”
And the legislators at our state capitol agree, having just voted affirmative on a bill to allow hemp farming in our state again. And as a result of Gov. Pat McCrory not vetoing or signing the bill after allowing it to sit on his desk for weeks, industrial hemp is a possibility now in North Carolina.
“It was Senate Bill 313. And basically what that bill did was authorize or allow the state of North Carolina to conduct a pilot program for purposes of research regarding the production and cultivation of industrial hemp.”
Senate Bill 313 proposes a hemp industry in order to expand employment, promote economic activity, and provide opportunities to small farmers.
“The bill created the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission. That’s a five member Commission that the bill charges with developing rules and regulations around this pilot program.”
The commission will establish the criteria or parameters of who can participate in the pilot program. They will issue paid permits, establish a reporting system for growers and ensure compliance with federal law. This commission will also coordinate research projects with N.C. State and N.C. A&T universities.
Even with this new law and rules being laid down, Townsend says it could be a bumpy road.
“Learning from other states that implemented legislation, I know that there’s going to be some hurdles that we’ll have to overcome.”
Lanier says the first hurdle before planting will be time.
“I don’t see that happening this year just because of the administrative processes. You know the appointments have to be made and 200 thousand dollars has to be collected before the commission can even begin to meet. So I would imagine that it would be a 2017 crop and harvest.”
But once the commission and the legislation are in place, Townsend feels that growing hemp legally can revive the state’s economy.
“We have the chance to make things locally, not only have the natural resource to do so, but then to learn how to use these different industries. We could have textiles here again.”
Newer uses for hemp include high-protein hemp seed in food, extracted oils for medicines, bio-fuels, and also processed building products. One of the biggest things that hemp can do is create healthy homes.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being in a hemp Crete house, and seeing it up close and personal, it’s kind of adobe like. You don’t need any of those fillers like insulation, and drywall, and siding and all of that.”
As a hemp advocate Townsend is optimistic for the future of hemp production and its possibilities in creating an eco-friendly lifestyle.
“They say that you can run a car off of hemp oil. And that Henry Ford designed a car made out of hemp and ran off of hemp oil. So that’s got pretty huge implications, of not only a new economy, but a green economy.”
With its many uses, hemp products are a substitute for more costly and toxic commodities like plastic and oil. They can also replace the destruction of forests — which can take decades to re-grow — with an industrial hemp crop that grows quickly in a year. For NC farmers who are interested in profits and the sustainability of the planet, legalized hemp could be the answer.
“I feel that they’re going to see the intrinsic benefit to hemp, even if they just use it as a rotation crop, it’s going to be beneficial to their soil. Where hemp grows it actually cleans the soil.”
The National Hemp Association credits the plant for requiring few pesticides and returning nutrients to the soil. And North Carolina’s climate and growing season are ideal for cultivating hemp. The planting season starts around June, or as early as two weeks prior to corn, and can be harvested between 40 and 90 days later.
Lanier says he is one of the many folks excited about the possibilities of hemp in our state.
“It will just be interesting to see the results of what can be gleaned in terms of production and cultivation, and then the marketability and then end-uses.”
With other states implementing similar hemp pilot programs, it’s understood that whether we grow it or not, we’re going to be using this product in the United States. And although we don’t yet know the long-term outcome of this new hemp law, at least it’s giving North Carolina farmers a chance to try something different.