Citrus County is a prime place to grow hemp and, if other such industrial farms in the nation are any indication, it can be lucrative for farmers, said Holly Bell, the state’s director of cannabis.

But because hemp production is still in its infancy and the rules and regulations being formed almost on the fly, there are still unknowns. That’s why it’s vital, she said, for local farmers to become educated, perhaps visit other hemp farms in the nation or at least talk with those who are growing the product.

“Right now, it is still a little bit of trial and error in the Wild West,” Bell said. 

Bell was the guest speaker at Tuesday’s Agricultural Alliance of Citrus County (AACC) meeting and it drew about 40 people — a sizable crowd for such meetings. The AACC recently formed a subcommittee to see whether hemp production would be a viable option for local growers.

Bell said the money-making side of growing hemp is still variable because it depends on acreage, variety of hemp grown and other variables.

But Bell said she knows hemp farmers in Tennessee — where she helped start an industrial hemp program — who are making $15,000 to $25,000 an acre. 

That shows how much of a demand there is for hemp, Bell said. The plant has 25,000 uses — everything from clothes and towels to food and CBD oil. Bell cited one man who used hemp to build his home.

The Florida Department of Agriculture expects to receive 8,000 applications by December and issue 3,000 cultivation permits. Some officials estimate the crop could eventually spawn a $30 billion annual industry in the Sunshine State.

Florida is a bit late to the hemp party, Bell said. Thirty-seven states have already authorized industrial hemp programs in the two years since the crop was legalized under the federal 2018 Farm Bill and all are awaiting approval and guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Bell told local farmers and audience members Tuesday there is another battle to fight: getting the public to lose its long-held image of associating hemp with marijuana.

“We’ve had 70 years of cannabis being bad and illegal,” she said. “It’s going to take some time and the mindset to change that.”

 

Industrial hemp is not marijuana because the plant will contain less than than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabino, which produces the psychoactive effect. If hemp plants are found to be above that threshold, the federal government can ask that those plants be destroyed. That's how strictly this industry will be regulated, she said.

The agricultural alliance’s hemp committee will continue to meet. The goal is to produce a business plan which spells out clearly how local farmers can proceed.

Getting Bell to speak before the entire alliance was a coup, said Mike Bays, with State Farm, who chairs that committee.

“We are very excited about hemp and yet, at the same time, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about,” he explained.

After Bell’s presentation, Bays cautioned those in the room thinking about getting into the hemp market to be aware of the risks and to heed her recommendation to practice due diligence.

“There are a lot of uncertainties,” he said. 

 

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.

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