If all goes well over the next few weeks, Florida officials expect the state’s first legal hemp farmers since the 1930s to start planting seeds in the first quarter of 2020, but there remain some unresolved and newly emerging issues to be worked out.
Florida Cannabis Director Holly Bell outlined that timeline Wednesday, along with some of the challenges faced now by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in bringing a hemp farming program out of the ground during a presentation to the state Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government.
Those challenges include the newly published federal standards for the newly legalized hemp agriculture industry, which came out last Friday and immediately created some conflicts with the proposed Florida standards.
Bell professed optimism, as her boss Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has done, that the state should have its rules, policies, and overall program established and running by the end of the year, allowing farmers to get hemp growing applications approved and seeds into the ground soon after.
“I’m thinking by January, February, March, they could start putting plants in the ground,” Bell said.
Yet she was unable to answer several questions raised Wednesday by the Senate committee, some on broad, longer-term issues such as environmental research, and some on shorter-term matters that will need to be worked out before the first commercial hemp seed is planted in Florida soil. She said her office is now reviewing the new federal guidelines to see how the state proposed rules align.
They included things that might cost unknown amounts of money to someone, the state or the farmers, as Florida rushes forward under Senate Bill 1020 from last spring to try to get its newly-authorized hemp industry into production as soon as possible.
For example, the state Agriculture Department’s program was intending to have farmers test crops to make sure the plants’ levels of the banned substance THC were low enough to be legal. But the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules require states to do that testing.
“In our previously proposed rules, we said the farmer would collect the sample. The USDA rules came out and said that is not OK,” Bell said. “We are now at the point of looking at some options to do that…. We’re looking at a couple different options for that.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture plans to make a $9.9 million appropriations request for the hemp program, but officials offered little detail Wednesday about what it would go toward, and whether that would include any money for hemp inspectors.
There also is the issue of controlling hemp as a potential invasive species, a concern raised by committee Chair Debbie Mayfield, a Republican from Rockledge. Bell noted that in the Midwest, hemp is known as a nuisance plant referred to as “ditch weed” and spread by wind-blown seeds.
“We have been studying that at the IFAS [University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences] centers. We’ve had a little plant movement, but not significant. So far we have no found anything,” Bell said.
Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando asked if the program was in a position to do or sponsor environmental research to see if hemp could be used for environmental cleanup of soils contaminated with heavy metals, or with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, as preliminary research elsewhere suggests. Bell said she was aware of such reports and had received some requests, but said she would have to check to see what her program might be in a position to do to participate.