By next summer, some North Carolina farm fields could be filled with cannabis plants – not marijuana, but hemp, which is marijuana’s near-twin in appearance but has little of the ingredient that makes people high.
For the first time in decades, hemp will be a legal crop in this state.
Initially it’s to be grown only on an experimental basis. But hemp advocates hope North Carolina will become part of a national revival of a hemp industry that was knocked down in the 20th century when hemp was lumped in with marijuana by national and local laws against illicit drugs.
The 21st-century American hemp revival is somewhat reminiscent of Colonial times. In the 1700s, according to historical records, leaders in North Carolina and other English colonies in North America encouraged farmers to grow hemp. They aimed to generate income with exports.
In 1766, North Carolina’s legislature voted to open a hemp-inspection warehouse in Campbellton, one of the two towns that later merged and became Fayetteville. A journal of the legislative session says the lawmakers also renewed for four years a bounty paid to hemp farmers.
More than two centuries later, North Carolina and the United States were importing all of their hemp products. After encouraging hemp production during World War II to supply the military with rope and other materials, the government effectively banned hemp farming in 1970. The last known American commercial crop was reported to have been grown in Wisconsin in 1957, according to The Denver Post newspaper.
In early 2014, Congress and the president approved a law to allow experimental hemp farming in states that conduct agricultural research. North Carolina’s lawmakers voted nearly unanimously in late September to join this effort. The legislation, which emerged with little warning or opportunity for vetting or public comment in the final days of the 2015 lawmaking session, creates the opportunity “to study the growth, cultivation, or marketing of industrial hemp.”
Including North Carolina, 27 states are pursuing hemp production, says the Vote Hemp Inc. advocacy group.
That’s great news for people such Brenda Harris, who operates the The Apple Crate Natural Market health food stores in Fayetteville and Hope Mills. The hemp seed, hemp-based protein powders and hemp-based soaps, lotions and oils on her shelves are imported from Canada and overseas.
Hemp seed is high in protein, Harris said, and in essential fatty acids that people need for good health.
Cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil, is reported to reduce nausea, suppress seizures, help with cancer, tumors, anxiety and depression and other health problems, says the Leaf Science website. But it notes that most of the studies that made these findings were with animals, not people.
In addition, hemp can be used in a number of fiber-based products.
“I’d love to know my dollars were supporting a North Carolina farmer,” Harris said.
“It will definitely mean the product will be more competitively priced,” she said. “And it’s not a terribly expensive product to start with, but still I feel like with bringing that closer to home, it’ll be more sustainable, there’ll be less shipping involved, there’ll be less mark-up involved. That’s usually the way the chain works.”
Organic farmer Lee Edwards of Kinston, about 90 minutes east of Fayetteville, could become one of Harris’ North Carolina suppliers.
Edwards plans to become part of North Carolina’s hemp pilot project and get a crop into the ground in mid-2016. He thinks hemp will make more money than the corn, wheat, soybeans and cereal grains he grows now.
“It’s a lower input cost and a higher profit per acre crop,” Edwards said. He estimated hemp could net him $1,250 per acre after expenses versus the $400 at most “on a real good year” from traditional grains. And he hopes that he can get two hemp crops a year.
Las Vegas-based Hemp Inc. opened a processing plant last year in Spring Hope, between Raleigh and Rocky Mount. It has been extracting fiber from kenaf, which is similar to hemp (and never was banned), and plans to process hemp as it becomes legal and available in the U.S.
The decortication plant extracts fibers that can be used in paper, clothing and other fiber-based products, even car parts and building materials, according to the Hemp Inc. website.
Back in Fayetteville, researcher Shirley Chao and her students at Fayetteville State University might be able to get North Carolina-grown hemp seed for their research into a hemp-derived insecticide. Until now, they have been buying imported seed.
Over the past several years, Chao and her students discovered that chemicals in hemp have a variety of detrimental effects on roaches, carpenter ants and grain-eating beetles.
“We found that it’s very effective in controlling reproduction,” Chao said. “And when they feed on it, they don’t develop normally. And so they, most of them, either die or have these deformations that you can see. And then if they do survive, they don’t reproduce normally.”
Chao hopes that further research will demonstrate that the hemp-based pesticide has no ill effects on people or other vertebrates. That quality could make it preferable to other pesticides in use today.
The school also is seeking a patent for the pesticide.
Before anyone buys hemp legally grown in North Carolina, the state has to set up its system to regulate it and issue hemp-growing licenses to the farmers.
That process is not moving as quickly as advocates would like.
The new hemp law says a state commission must be set up to license and regulate the growers. But first, the industry has to raise $200,000 in private donations to pay for the commission.
As of mid-November, about $20,000 had been raised, said Thomas Shumaker, the executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association.
Shumaker’s group led the effort at the legislature this year to pass the hemp law.
Once the money is raised, a five-person N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission will be appointed to set up the state’s hemp program, the law says. It is to work with federal law enforcement or other federal agencies as appropriate, vet people seeking licenses and set rules for how the program will operate.
Because of law enforcement concerns, the GPS coordinates of every hemp farm will be noted, and the hemp will be subject to testing to ensure that it isn’t actually marijuana. Under the law, hemp plants must have no more than 0.3 percent THC content, the psychoactive chemical that makes marijuana users high.
Marijuana typically has 5 to 20 percent THC and the highest grades carry 25 to 30 percent, Leaf Science says.
It will probably be June before North Carolina’s hemp regulatory system is in place and farmers can start planting, Shumaker said.
Learning from others
In the meantime, the state’s farmers can learn from growers in several other states who have been experimenting with hemp.
Kentucky just finished its second year of its pilot project. It had 922 acres planted in 2015, said Adam Watson, the industrial hemp program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
The state is looking at different varieties of hemp for grain (the seeds), fiber and nutraceuticals, which are oils that are thought to have health benefits.
The program has worked with with law enforcement, Watson said. Police know the growers have hemp, not marijuana, he said, but some thieves didn’t know the difference and went into a field and stole some.
Farmers have tested seed from Canada, Australia and Europe, he said. They are allowed to sell their harvest, but it’s too soon to figure out yet the extent of the potential market, he said.
While hemp can be used to make paper, textiles, building materials and other items, it may not necessarily be the best raw material for those products, Watson said. Much depends on whether the hemp-based products prove to be practical and cost-effective, he said.
Watson and other industry observers said the American hemp industry is in a chicken-and-egg situation in getting started: Because there have been no growers, there is no marketplace or infrastructure to buy their product. But without growers, there is no incentive to set up a marketplace.
But there is demand for hemp.
The Congressional Research Service this year estimated that in 2013, the United States imported $36.9 million in hemp products. The Hemp Industries Association estimated that the total U.S. retail value of hemp products in 2013 was $581 million, the research service said.
People like Edwards, the farmer from Kinston, want a piece of that market.
“I hope to start with around 50 acres,” Edwards said. “That’s more of just getting going the first year. Depending on how things go, I’d love to get up to a couple hundred acres.”