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Hemp’s first year on North Carolina farms wraps up, a lot was learned

Industrial hemp is still in its infancy in North Carolina, but the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State University are committed to growing the industry.

North Carolina’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is wrapping up its first year and the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission continues to hold public hearings and is encouraging farmers to apply for licenses to grow industrial hemp through the pilot program.

N.C. State hired Emily Febles as the Extension industrial hemp program coordinator to help implement the industrial hemp pilot research program in North Carolina. Febles has been on the job since September and comes to North Carolina from the Washington State Department of Agriculture in Olympia where she was the industrial hemp pilot program coordinator there.

At this year’s North Carolina Agricultural Consultants fall meeting held in Raleigh Nov. 30, Febles gave the crop consultants a status report on the fledgling North Carolina industrial hemp industry. As the pilot program wraps up its first year, 121 farmers were approved for licenses and there are 30 registered industrial hemp processors in the state.

Febles said the licensed growers indicated they planned  to grow 2,000 acres of industrial hemp as part of the pilot program, but when it is all said and done actual acreage is about half of that.

North Carolina State University

Emily Febles

Febles emphasized that to plant industrial hemp in North Carolina you have to obtain a license from the commission, be a farmer with proven income from an actual farm operation and have a stated research objective for growing industrial hemp. She said more growers and processors are needed to help grow the industry.

A big part of Febles’ job is educating people about the differences between industrial hemp from its relative marijuana.

“Industrial hemp, when grown under a state licensing program, is actually a federally legal crop. Marijuana is actually a federally illegal crop. As long as you are following the rules of your state, it is federally legal to grow industrial hemp,” Febles said.

Thirteen states are actively growing industrial hemp right now and Febles expects five more states will start growing industrial hemp next year. The 2014 farm bill included provisions allowing certain research institutions and state departments of agriculture to establish pilot programs for legally growing industrial hemp.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory singed a bill in 2015 allowing the Industrial Hemp Commission to develop the rules and licensing structure necessary for industrial hemp to stay within the federal guidelines in North Carolina.

There is currently no crop insurance for growing industrial hemp in North Carolina and no pesticides or herbicides have been labeled for the crop in the state to date. License holders must agree to an annual THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) test from either law enforcement or NCDA to make sure the THC level is below the 0.3 percent threshold that can make people high.

“You should understand that there are risks involved. Even if you do everything correctly, if your plants test over that 0.3  percent limit, they have to be destroyed,” Febles said.

Of the 121 growers who were licensed to grow industrial hemp in North Carolina this year, 10 had to destroy their crops because the THC level went above the 0.3 percent limit. “We are just beginning to learn what causes the THC spikes in North Carolina,” Febles said.

Marijuana has a THC level of 3 to 20  percent on a dry-weight basis compared to the less than 1 percent level of industrial hemp.  Febles notes that the THC level in marijuana grown in states such as Washington and Colorado, where it is legal under state law, can be as high as 25 percent.

“Marijuana and industrial hemp are varieties of cannabis that developed due to selective breeding. Industrial hemp was bred for its fiber and seed oil. Marijuana was bred for its narcotic components,” Febles said.

The end market determines the type of industrial hemp a farmer will choose to grow.

Hemp oil is used for products ranging from dietary supplements to salad dressings to cosmetics. The fiber from hemp is used for products including apparel, footwear, luggage and other accessories. Hemp is also used for animal bedding in Europe, and Febles notes that hemp is used to make hempcrete, a natural form of concrete.

“When you’re growing industrial hemp for seed or for food, it’s a shorter plant, about waist high or shoulder high. When you’re talking about growing it for fiber, you’re really talking about growing a 10 to 12 foot tall plant. It comes out looking a lot like bamboo,” Febles explained.

There is also dual purpose industrial hemp that it a little taller than the seed varieties, but still produces a good amount of seed. Febles notes the fibers from the plant are still long enough to make products such as shirts, pants and parachutes.

Industrial hemp grown for seed is used for its oil. The market is for the flowers of the plant that are dried down and where the oil is extracted. The crop is grown for its cannabinoids, or CBD, content. Febles notes that industrial hemp grown for seed is produced more like a horticulture crop and is very difficult to mechanize.

When grown for its CBD or flower extract content, industrial hemp is grown from transplants in wide rows. “You grow all female plants when growing it for CBD content. You don’t want any males in your crop,” Febles said.

“When you are growing industrial hemp for CBD, your payment depends on the amount of CBD that is produced in your batch of industrial hemp plants. Plants will be tested for the amount of CBD they produce. If your plants produce more, you get paid more,” she added.

Industrial hemp grown for its fiber is produced much like traditional row crops with combines used for harvest and the like.

Febles said farmers need to determine their end market before choosing their industrial hemp varieties, deciding if they want to grow for the CBD market or the fiber market. When completing a license with the commission, North Carolina farmers must determine if they are growing industrial hemp for the fiber market or CBD market.

“Variety selection is very important when you are considering growing industrial hemp,” she said.


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