Hemp industry sees explosion of interest

by | May 24, 2019

By Joey Pitchford

Since the passage of the federal farm bill in 2018 legalized the growing of industrial hemp, interest in the crop here in North Carolina has exploded.
Since the end of 2018, the number of licensed hemp growers in the state has more than doubled. With more applications to grow hemp coming in all the time, it falls to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture Plant Industry division to handle that increase in demand.

Phil Wilson, plant industry division director, said that the expansion has come faster than anyone anticipated.

“At the end of 2018, we had approximately 450 licensed growers. Today we have 900, almost 1,000 licensed growers, so you can see the increase in just five months,” he said. “We’ve seen that kind of intensity all along when we started from zero. It’s just incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it in my 30 years of seeing new programs come along.”

Much of that interest comes from the many purported uses for hemp. The most often-cited is CBD oil — touted as having a wide range of medicinal benefits — but the hemp plant itself can also be put to other uses, such as creating fiber.

A hemp plant growing in Edenton, N.C.

Plant industry is the main regulatory body when it comes to hemp production. That means that the division is responsible for making sure that what is growing in the field is in fact industrial hemp, and not marijuana. The division does this through site visits and sample testing, where lab technicians break down a hemp sample to measure its level of THC — the chemical in marijuana responsible for getting a person high. Hemp cannot contain more than .3 percent THC — otherwise it is classified as marijuana and is illegal.

Once the test comes back, as long as the crop is within the THC limits, the division then notifies the grower that they are clear to sell the product. Hemp farmers may grow for a number of reasons or products including fiber, CBD or for seed, but the THC limits apply no matter what the end goal is for the plant.

Matt Marsh co-owns a small hemp growing operation in Wake County. He is one of a few growers across the state who is growing specifically for seed, with the goal of creating a consistent product for future hemp growers to buy. With the majority of hemp plants coming through cloning plants from Colorado, where marijuana is legal and THC levels are less tightly regulated, Marsh said he and others like him hope to bring a degree of certainty to the hemp growing process.

“The vigor that’s lost when you clone versus when you come from seed, I think is possibly being detrimental to our farmers,” he said. “What we want to do is, if we can get a feminized seed that gives you a good level of predictability, so that we know that seed gives you about as close to the testing that a clone would give you, then we think that a good and feminized seed is better for the farmer.”

Growers like Marsh are focused on the long-term. For Wilson, looking to the future is exactly where the plant industry division wants to be as well when it comes to hemp.

“There are numerous benefits that are being touted for the crop for mankind overall as well as animals. If all that is true, then I feel like we’re doing a service to the industry, the United States and others outside the country, because we’d like to be able to export these products as well.”

Hemp plants growing in a greenhouse in Edenton.

As the hemp industry grows, Wilson and his team will be the ones making sure everything is done by the books. During that process, Wilson asked that people be willing to work with the division to make things easier on everyone.

“Our money goes to help those who want to get into the program, we certainly want to help them do so. I would just ask everyone to be patient with us. We get many calls every day from new people wanting to get in to it, and it takes a lot of time,” he said. “Be patients, and we’ll continue to get it done. We’re here to serve, and that’s what we intend to do as far as to help this industry grow in North Carolina.”