Editor's Note: A correction was made to the fourth and ninth paragraphs of the original article.
Industrial hemp seed can be obtained from within the United States and planted in North Carolina, allowing the state’s pilot program for producing industrial hemp to get underway.
The North Carolina Hemp Commission received an opinion from the North Carolina attorney general's office to allow them to license growers who want to obtain industrial hemp seeds from another state. This development allows North Carolina farmers to source domestic seed for planting an industrial hemp crop in the Tar Heel State.
Sandy Stewart, vice chairman of the commission and director of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Research Stations Division, says with this approval “we should now have a source of seed which would allow farmers to begin planting industrial hemp in North Carolina sometime in May."
Stewart says there is a great deal of interest in growing industrial hemp in North Carolina. In fact, White Hat Seed Farm in Hertford plans to plant foundation industrial hemp seed obtained from Italy in May that it hopes to sell to North Carolina farmers next year who went to try their hand at growing industrial hemp.
Rules for producing hemp have been approved and the commission has begun licensing growers to grow hemp under the rules. To grow industrial hemp in North Carolina, an individual must be a bona fide farmer in the state and provide tax information to show that.
Stewart says farmers must also agree to work with either North Carolina State University or North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to meet eleven research objectives established by statute in North Carolina.
“Every farmer who grows hemp needs to address one or more of those objectives and turn over the information to the universities at the end of the year. We’re doing this so we can learn more about the crop,” Stewart says.
All planting of industrial hemp will be subject to sampling of THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture will conduct sampling of industrial hemp field and perform the sampling. By law, industrial hemp must have a THC level of 0.3 percent or less.
White Hat plans to plant 40 acres of the Italian variety Carmagnola Selezionata that will be grown as certified seed and should be available to North Carolina growers who want to grow industrial hemp beginning in 2018. Schiavi Seeds of Lexington, Ky., is supplying the foundation seed to White Hat.
Andrea Schiavi, an Italian and president of Schiavi Seeds, explains that the variety Carmagnola Selezionata should be well suited to North Carolina’s climate and growing conditions. “The best approach is to plant only certified seed for growers and for research. Certified seed is important for guaranteeing quality to growers and making sure the THC levels are below 0.3 percent allowed by law,” he says.
“A certified seed program is the way to go. It gives security and stability both to growers and to law enforcement agencies. Whenever somebody grows certified industrial hemp the THC is well below the THC level of marijuana. Our varieties, being European, are certified, bred and maintained to have a THC level below 0.2 percent which is mandated by law in Europe.”
Burt Eure, president of White Hat Seed Farms, sees great potential for growing industrial hemp in North Carolina. He says the company look forward to providing certified seed to farmers beginning next year. “There is a lot of interest in growing industrial hemp in North Carolina, whether used for fiber or for oil,” he says.
Like Eure, Stewart believes industrial hemp has the potential to be a good crop for North Carolina. However, there are many obstacles to overcome.
“There is perception that industrial hemp is a super crop that is not adversely impacted by insects and diseases and has low fertility requirements. The information we have shows that this is not the case. Industrial hemp is like any other crop. It has its challenges t like any other crop,” Stewart emphasizes.
The greatest challenge is all the regulations involved with producing industrial hemp.
“Dealing with this crop, even though we haven’t had a crop in the field, has been more complicated because of the regulatory nature of it. Where it falls under federal law and state law is complicated. Once we cross those hurdles, it’s not going to be completely straightforward either because we have to get some experience, we have to learn some things,” Stewart.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University are all committed to growing the industrial hemp industry in North Carolina. Stewart says research trials are planned at N.C. State research stations in Salisbury, Plymouth and Rocky Mount and at the North Carolina A & T research farm in Greensboro.
So far, North Carolina is turning mostly to Kentucky and Canada for industrial hemp production information. Industrial hemp has been commercially grown in Canada since 1998.
“The Canadian hemp industry is well established. Anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 acres of industrial hemp is grown in western Canada, primarily for the seed instead of the fiber. Canada exports a lot of the de-hulled seed to several countries, including the United States, as a health food,” Stewart explains. “Once packaged for human consumption, it’s a pretty high value product.”
As for the agronomic practices of producing industrial hemp, North Carolina has been turning so far to work done by the University of Kentucky. Stewart notes that Keith Edmisten, N.C. State’s cotton specialist, has been tabbed to direct research and develop agronomic practices for producing industrial hemp in North Carolina.
“Because it is a brand new crop and has been illegal under federal law until the 2014 farm bill, there aren’t any crop protection products registered and labeled for industrial hemp,” Stewart explains. “The biggest concern is weed control and Kentucky has been screening a number of herbicides that show promise.
“The biggest challenges growers will face is getting a stand because it is small seed that has to be planted fairly shallow. Most folks plant with a grain drill with 7.5 to 10 inch rows. It doesn’t like overly wet conditions. It doesn’t like really hot soil temperatures at planting. We think the best time for planting is the middle of May, but some varieties will likely tolerate a later planting date.”
Industrial hemp can be harvested with a combine, but adjustments must be made to the combine. “Industrial hemp seed is high in protein and high in oil, but it has a relatively soft seed so handling that harvested seed is going to be a learning curve for us. It can’t be handled as rough as corn and soybeans,” Stewart says.
Stewart sees a bright future for industrial hemp in North Carolina. Demand is expected to be strong for both the seed and the fiber. “The infrastructure to handle the harvested crop is fairly limited in 2017, but if the market develops as people say it will, that will come in due time,” Stewart says.
“We’ve got some good farmers and they’re used to diversity on their farm,” Stewart stresses. “They are used to growing multiple crops and from that standpoint, they’re not going to be daunted by the challenge of industrial hemp. They’re going to learn about it and fit it into their programs.”
Industrial hemp being harvested in Manitoba, Canada in September 2016.Photo by Angela Post/North Carolina State University
An industrial hemp field in Manitoba, Canada. Photo by Angela Post/North Carolina State University.