Florida’s first hemp program passed by Legislature, heads to governor for signature

The push for a hemp program in Florida has been a largely bipartisan one, and plays into a national trend of following what some call the “green rush” of financial opportunity.
A bee sits on the flower of a hemp plant at Frank Diehl Farms in 2016. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
A bee sits on the flower of a hemp plant at Frank Diehl Farms in 2016. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published May 3, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- Across the state, farmers, processors and innovators have been waiting for a green light.

Some are ready to return century-old family land to farm again, revitalize citrus operations, build processing facilities and make sustainable cotton-like products.

They wanted a hemp program and Friday afternoon, their wishes were answered.

On the penultimate day of the legislative session, the Legislature approved a bill that allows the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a state hemp program. The Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill. On Wednesday, all members but Rep. James Bush, D-Miami, voted to approve the bill.

Bob Clayton, who says he played a large part in writing the hemp legislation, is hopeful that others in Florida can use locally grown hemp to build homes like his, which is made entirely of hemp lime construction, or “hemp-crete.”

“Cue the music. Strike up the band. Florida will farm hemp,” Clayton wrote in an email. “Party anyone?”

The push for a hemp program in Florida has been a largely bipartisan one, and plays into a national trend of following what some call the “green rush” of financial opportunity.

No prohibitions on industrial hemp

Following the passage of the 2014 farm bill, hemp growing became allowed under certain circumstances by research institutions and state departments of agriculture. The 2018 farm bill removed prohibitions on industrial hemp in place since 1937, and authorized states to create hemp programs beyond the university research setting.

“Florida is going to be a pioneer, one of the first states to act in this emerging space,” said Senate bill sponsor Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island.

Under the bill, the department will have to submit the plan to the United States Department of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp. The plan has to include testing procedures, certification methods, inspection plans and corrective actions for farmers who may be in violation.

Possession of hemp will still be illegal in Florida until July 1.

Rulemaking will start no later than August 1, after which permits can be awarded. While many restrictions surrounding this process were stripped out of the bill, people with drug felonies may not apply within 10 years of conviction.

If the plan is not approved by the federal government, then Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried can work with the Cabinet to provide the Legislature with recommendations for a new plan.

Fried, a noted advocate for hemp, said Friday that the vote was “80 years in the making.”

“Florida is now on the verge of establishing a state hemp program and creating a multi-billion dollar industry,” she said. “Our farmers have asked for alternative crops. Floridians want access to safe, tested cannabis and CBD. With this bill, our department can make those goals a reality and transform our economy.”

Hemp in Florida today

Since the 2014 farm bill, the University of Florida created a two-year hemp pilot program that is housed on three sites across the state, where researchers are studying the risk of hemp plants becoming invasive threats as well as identifying hemp varieties suitable for Florida’s various environments.

Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state.

The hemp plant has about 25,000 recorded uses and according to congressional research reports, hemp sales in the U.S. were worth nearly $700 million annually in 2016. At least 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp. In the U.S., the hemp market is largely dependent on imports.

Jeffrey Sharkey of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, helped write the legislation that authorized the Department of Agriculture to issue hemp field study permits through Florida A&M and the University of Florida. He and his partner, Taylor Biehl, applauded the bill sponsors for getting the bill passed.

“Florida is certain to become a real leader in the burgeoning hemp industry and hemp derived CBD markets,” they said in a text message. “The creation of a state hemp program will have an enormous impact on the state’s economy.“

New hemp leader

The state’s first director of cannabis, Holly Bell, said hemp has been a priority as she settles into her new role. Bell, who helped grow the hemp industry in Tennessee before she moved to Florida, said she’s planning to approach the program by looking at what other states have done right and wrong.

She said she sees the program coming in stages. First with hemp extract products like CBD oil to keep up with demand and then later, a larger infrastructure can be built out to process more industrial-scaled crops.

She added that because Florida’s climate can sustain two or three crops a year, people interested in the industry will need to seriously consider building out high-tech processing centers to keep up.

“We’re talking millions of dollars,” Bell said. “The biggest thing was not getting the infrastructure in place for the processing and manufacturing. It’s got to all be going at the same time.”

Bell said while infrastructure will have to catch up, Florida’s longtime agriculture families have the institutional knowledge it takes to get seedling greenhouses started and plants in the ground. Fruits and vegetables go for $0.30 or $0.40 a seedling, while hemp goes for an average of $3.

“We could be a major distribution hub for the world and the United States, for seedlings in these greenhouses that we have here,” she said.

Tim Stanfield, a lobbyist and attorney who represents hemp clients worldwide, said the nascent “hemp revolution” is reminiscent of the technology boom in 1990s Silicon Valley. Hemp is like tech but more egalitarian, he said.

“You couldn’t just have an Apple laptop and inject yourself into the tech boom of the late ‘90s,” he said. “You had to have capital, infrastructure, a real know-how to be able to innovate and move quick.”

Stanfield said he was glad to see the support of the Legislature on the bill, since expanding agricultural opportunities and creating jobs is central to the livelihood of Floridians. He said farmers with land battered by Hurricane Michael will be able to quickly create some capital to recover, and more farmers will have the opportunity to keep land in their families instead of selling it off to developers.

“If every issue worked like that, we would be a lot better off,” he said. “Senator Albritton was extremely skeptical and is somebody who really wants to deliver this to his community now. Senator Bradley … I watched the light come on. The realization is that there’s nothing harmful going on here.”

Who wants to grow?

Bell said she’s been meeting with potential hemp farmers who range from aspirational solo South Floridians to major citrus industry movers and shakers.

Nadine Proctor, of Opa-locka, has had land in her family for 170 years. She said as soon as the governor signs the bill, she’s moving to Madison County on Florida’s northern border to grow hemp on the vacant land.

She said she’s bringing along some of her relatives to continue the tradition her family started over a century ago, which involved farming and training others how to grow peanuts, tobacco and livestock.

“It is a crucial area when it comes to people to protect the land they own,” Proctor said. “They were great farmers, but now their land has [been left vacant]. Those are the people we want to bring back and bring their kids to grow hemp for the next 20 years.”

John Rivera, of Howey-in-the-Hills north of Orlando, helps run Record Bucks Farms, one of the state’s premier citrus growing nurseries. Rivera said he and his partners have been waiting for the hemp program for over two years, and are “uniquely qualified” to snag a license.

Rivera said they are hoping to get hemp plants in the ground this year on a 50-acre test plot. Next year, they plan to expand that plot to 200 acres. He said the farm has 60 employees currently, but will hire another 100 for future hemp production.

“We’re standing on that starting line, waiting for the gun to go off, But we’re ready,” he said. “We have the talent in place, our teams in place, the people who know how to process.”

Others in Florida are less interested in the growth of hemp, and more keen on processing it.

Jason Welz, of Clearwater, runs Vermont CBD Labs near Burlington, where he and his partners grew nearly 50,000 pounds of hemp in their first harvest. While they grew the plot as a pilot project, Welz and his partners are more interested in building processing facilities for farmers.

Welz and his partners are geared up to start what they call Clearwater Hemp Corporation in the state. They believe they’ll be able to help Florida farmers by providing some investment capital to do drying and processing and provide them with an ongoing demand for their product.

“Here in Florida, the farming industry has been quite a challenge. The citrus growers, multi-generational farming families had some challenges in recent years,” Welz said. “We see this as a way to provide a whole host of new opportunities for very skilled, professional farmers and farming families. By doing Vermont as a pilot, it gave us about two years of head start ...we’ll bring the know-how on the hemp side.”

Brianna Kilcullen, of Jacksonville, said she’s also interested in the production side of hemp so she can bring her hemp towel business back to Florida.

Kilcullen used to work in textiles for Columbia Sportswear and Under Armour, and was exposed to the potential of hemp as a sustainable textile while traveling abroad for work.

She created a prototype of a hemp-based towel that is antibacterial, antimicrobial and helps get rid of odor that tends to build up in cotton-based towels. Her towels are currently produced in China, and she sells them online.

“The markets are endless … it’s actually overwhelming. I can see it in hospitals and hotels and restaurants and gyms and spas. It’s never ending,” she said.

Kilcullen said through her research, she learned that Disney resorts get three truckloads of towels a day.

“This is clearly a huge opportunity,” she said.

Clayton, who built his Fort Myers home of “hemp-crete,” called the legislation a victory, even though the five pages of legislation he helped write turned into a 15-page bill. In an email Friday, he said this bill’s passing marks his retirement from politics.

“[Hemp] will be just a normal product like peas and carrots and tomatoes,” he said. “You can make anything out of it. We have to get growing.”