Secrets of hemp unfold with research in Central Florida
BY AUSTIN FULLER
APOPKA – One researcher calls hemp a “plant from another planet.”
Hemp is growing in greenhouses at a University of Florida research center in Apopka, where a sign on a greenhouse door warns against removing plants and specifically notes it is industrial hemp, not marijuana.
With the recent legalization of hemp, the Florida Department of Agriculture is working on regulations for farmers to grow the crop to meet demand for cannabidiol, or CBD, products.
Universities are also studying the plant, with projects coming to the forefront in Central Florida, while consumers already consume products containing CBD.
“This is emerging crop development on steroids and right now it’s the wild west out there,” said Roger Kjelgren, the director of UF’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center.
Hemp has the potential to become a new cash crop for Florida farmers who face challenges such as destruction from recent hurricanes Irma and Michael and the devastation of the citrus industry by greening disease.
“Let’s be honest, hemp is cannabis and cannabis has the stigma,” Kjelgren said. “This is still regulated but not to the same extent as medical marijuana. So basically it’s a cross between a rugby scrum and the Oklahoma Land Rush at the moment.”
Demand for CBD
Demand right now is for CBDtype hemp, said Holly Bell, appointed earlier this year as the state’s director of cannabis by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a CBD prescription drug, Epidiolex, to treat seizures from severe forms of epilepsy.
Other products such as CBD beverages have hit the market, but the FDA is still evaluating regulations for non-drug cannabis products. Although some believe CBD can help anxiety or improve focus, the agency notes that information on how CBD affects the body is limited.
Regulations for Florida hemp farmers are expected to include a background check, with the only thing really prohibiting someone from getting a license is if they have been a convicted narcotics felon in the past 10 years, Bell said.
She expects the state department will likely start accepting applications for permits in December.
The majority of more than 3,000 interested parties on a state list are cultivators, said Bell, who at a press conference earlier this year called hemp a “multibillion-dollar opportunity.”
Florida farmers are “very good at growing specialty crops,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. “I see us having a big role throughout the United States.”
In other states, Bell has seen farmers growing five to 10 acres of CBD-type hemp. “It’s very labor-intensive,” she said. “That was a good way to start.”
She expects in the crop’s second-year hemp will be farmed for things like its fiber for clothes.
‘Looking to diversify’
While commercial farming is awaiting regulations, pilot research projects by universities are allowed.
At the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, hemp is growing along with other plants like hops.
“Hemp is part of the portfolio of emerging crops that IFAS works on to benefit farmers and growers in the state of Florida because they’re always looking to diversify risk and to be able to grow something with a profit,” Kjelgren said.
“The demand and the potential market for CBD is quite high, so there’s a lot of interest.”
Learning from mistakes
It is being studied by UF at sites across the state, but the Apopka research is focused on hemp for CBD instead of hemp for seed or fiber.
“The greenhouses are needed to clone, so that’s one goal,” Kjelgren said. “Then the second goal is how to finish a product that can be sold (from) a greenhouse.”
He said research is being funded by the hemp and agriculture industries, with the goal of developing recommendations for growers.
“This is a plant from another planet in that it’s very strange,” he said. “We’re making the mistakes for them and we learn from them. … That’s what we do. That’s what science is.”
FAMU, UCF too
Some of its uncommon properties are that it has male and female plants, and it needs long days and then shorter days after midsummer to trigger flowering to produce the desirable compounds, Kjelgren added.
Other universities are partnering with companies to research hemp.
One of Florida A&M University’s partners is Sunshine Hemp in St. Cloud.
The University of Central Florida’s Board of Trustees in September approved pursuing an industrial hemp permit. The university had already been contacted by a potential partner in the project.
Fort Lauderdale-based hemp company Green Point Research is seeking a permit to work with farmers on 150 acres of hemp off County Road 33 near Groveland.
Florida State University, which will not be part of the farming, is partnering on the permitting as the university is interested in research such as for the potential use of CBD similar to how ibuprofen is used, said Gary Ostrander, FSU’s vice president of research.
Green Point is partnering with Charles “Charlie” Fields III and his brother Scott Fields, whose family owns Fields Equipment, as well as Dustin Lowe, on the potential Groveland farm.
“It’s been so exciting to have the ability to be a pioneer in a lot of ways,” Charles Fields said.
Ostrander, meanwhile, stressed the importance of research in this emerging industry.
“If you’re putting this stuff in you, you want to know what it is,” he said.