Industrial Hemp Seen as a Potential Boon to Farmers

Mar 7, 2017

On a 5000-acre farm in Marion County, the Baxley family grows corn, soybeans, tobacco, and peanuts. In the past few years, intense storms have ruined their harvesting season, denying the family much needed revenue.  Neal Baxley, who manages the farm with his dad, is interested in planting a new crop, one that's more flexible, resilient, and profitable. For Baxley, hemp is the answer. The only problem is hemp isn't legal to produce in South Carolina. Cooper McKim reports that the state is one of many currently trying to legalize hemp production this year.

Overhang under repairs
Credit Cooper McKim/SC Public Radio

Guinea hens run by the chicken coup as a nearby worker repairs the tin roof of an overhang. The material was blown off during Hurricane Matthew. The storm's intense winds caused massive structural damage on the property blowing down more than five hundred trees. Five months later, the family is still making repairs.

The intense wind caused roofs to fly, but the rain is what ruined the harvest. The farm lost nearly 40% of their crop, says Baxley. With the 2015 flood, recurring drought, and Matthew last year, he wants to start growing something more resilient and flexible.

Baxley says "my hope with hemp would be that, it may offer us another high-value cash crop that would hopefully allow some of us to decrease the total amount of acres we farm and give us a better quality of life."

The sand in the creek collected after Hurricane Matthew
Credit Cooper McKim/SC Public Radio

Hemp is a plant that looks similar to marijuana. Unlike the drug though, hemp can be used in a variety of products including paper, textiles, construction materials and more. Even BMW, who has their biggest factory in the world in South Carolina, uses the material in their car doors.

Baxley adds hemp has a more flexible harvesting period than their other crops. Some buyers may want the stalk of the hemp plant instead of the flower, meaning harvesting could occur long before hurricane season.

Hemp is not legal to produce in South Carolina because it contains a trace amount of THC -- the same chemical found more potently in marijuana. Cultivation of hemp was banned in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. A federal Farm Bill in 2014 reversed the ban, so now states can decide whether or not to legalize its use.

Hemp Plant
Credit Attercop311 / English Wikipedia

State Representative Russell Ott says he thinks hemp could be great for South Carolina. A farmer himself, he says diversification is always a good thing, especially with the recent surge in unexpected weather events. Ott says "whenever we have the opportunity to allow our farmers to dive into a new crop, that's a good thing."

Nationwide, only fifteen states allow the cultivation of hemp including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Colorado. Beyond South Carolina, bills are also pending this year in New Mexico, South Dakota, and Illinois among others. 

If the bill goes through in South Carolina, hemp cultivation would still be very limited. The bill would enable a three-year pilot program allowing fifteen permits to be distributed. Anyone applying for a permit would need a committed buyer beforehand. Any potential permittees would also have to submit to a background check. The pilot program is also intended to test out where hemp grows best and in what conditions.

Cultivation of industrial hemp for fiber and for grain in france.
Credit Aleks

Ott says "we want to spread this out throughout the state, so that we can test the growth of hemp in different soil conditions and different regions of our state to find out where it grows the best, what variety of seed works the best. We want to equip our farmers with what they're ultimately going to need to be successful."

Ott hopes having hemp cultivation in the state will attract businesses to the area who might be importing hemp from elsewhere. "So if we can produce it here, it makes it much more viable for those types of industries and groups to come in and locate here and then it raises the entire economy," says Ott.

Nevertheless, there is pushback against legalizing hemp, primarily from law enforcement officials. The Drug Enforcement Agency still sees hemp as a variant of marijuana after all. Some opponents worry the hemp farms will act as a cover-up marijuana growth. Mark Keel, the chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, says he wants officers to be able to sample any farmer’s hemp without a search warrant. He says "we want to just verify that what's planted there is there."

"Whenever we have the opportunity to allow our farmers to dive into a new crop, that's a good thing."

Other law enforcement officials want a stricter background check. Jarod Bruder, Director of the Sheriff's Association, says the current iteration of the bill is too lenient. A simple name background check won't give as much valuable information as a fingerprint check. He insists the fingerprint check is necessary. "I understand the connotation that comes with it, but we also have to understand teachers, day care workers have to get background checks, fingerprint checks," Bruder says.

The bill is still in its early stages. It passed through the House Agricultural Sub-Committee with a vote of 5-0. It will likely take several months before the bill could appear on Governor McMaster's desk.