ESTERO, Fla. — The orange trees in the Corkscrew grove still produce fruit, though not nearly as much as they did just a decade ago. Thanks to hurricanes and pathogens, many are damaged and dying. Branches are spindly, leaves curled and yellowing.
“There was a time not too long ago that these trees were so full and green, you could hardly see through them,” Michael Sparks tells Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, as they survey the damage under a blazing hot sun.
When Sparks looks at the stressed grove, he sees an industry fighting for survival. Yet Fried sees something else: opportunity. And not just here but across Florida, wherever nature and disease have taken a serious toll on crops and commodities.
Her solution is hemp. “Hemp can help,” Fried says.
In a state inextricably linked to the orange — the fruit that adorns its license plates and the juice that it offers visitors at welcome centers — such prophecy might once have been considered heresy. But Fried won office last year partly because of her pro-pot campaign. Touting the benefits of hemp and marijuana for personal health as well as Florida’s economy, the lawyer-lobbyist narrowly defeated a seventh-generation farmer and became the first elected female commissioner of agriculture and consumer services since Florida became a state in 1845.
Fried has moved quickly on her signature issue ever since. She appointed the state’s first director of cannabis and assigned staff to draft language clarifying what’s legal under both federal and state laws when it comes to growing hemp. She wants Florida to be the country’s hemp leader, both in production and manufacturing.
During her visit to Corkscrew, she explains her ambitions for the new industry to Sparks and the other citrus men showing her around.
How much will the hemp industry be worth in the state, they ask.
“I’m seeing it as at least a $5 billion industry,” she replies.
How much farmland does she think will be converted to hemp, the group wonders.
“I’d say hundreds of thousands of acres,” she says.
The growers don’t challenge her pitch, but they glance at each other with raised eyebrows. Florida citrus, an industry that’s been around for a century, covers 569,000 acres. It’s worth $7 billion and, after tourism, is the state’s second-largest industry. Fried wants hemp to come in a close third. Her cannabis director predicts it could yield $20,000 an acre — far more than citrus.
Other states have a big head start in hemp farming. Colorado is in first, with 12,006 acres planted. But even without any legal plants in the state, Florida leads in the manufacturing of hemp-based CBD products, according to the Florida Hemp Trade and Retail Association. And the market in those infused oils, lotions, gummies, coffee and bath bombs is booming.
Fried has big plans for hemp. She says it might be used to make a new kind of plastic, a new kind of concrete, clothing, batteries. It might even help to solve Florida’s algae pollution problem if it’s used as a filter, she says. “It’s a miracle plant.”
Sparks, chief executive of the trade association Florida Citrus Mutual, agrees hemp could help buffer an industry that last year reported its lowest output since 1940. “Ghost groves” now stand where smaller growers have abandoned diseased orange trees.
“You can feel the excitement when [Fried] talks about it,” Sparks noted after her Corkscrew visit. “She has a crystal ball that many of us have not caught up with yet, and certainly more exploration is needed. But it’s something to be welcomed by Florida farmers.”
Mark Wheeler is curious but cautious. His family has been growing citrus in Central Florida for four decades. Hurricane Irma, canker and the disease known as citrus greening hurt his groves, but he remains committed to oranges. Still, he says he’s open to new ideas, including hemp.
“I can see folks experimenting with it, maybe plant 10 acres or so, diversifying a little bit,” Wheeler explained. “But you really need to know where it will be processed and who the ultimate consumer is. Otherwise, you could find yourself behind the eight ball pretty quick.”
Hemp farming, which Congress legalized late last year, can be a pricey endeavor.
A seed can cost from 50 cents to as much as $10, according to Jeff Greene, vice president of the state hemp trade group. The average number of seeds needed to plant an acre ranges from 2,000 to 5,000.
“Right now, it’s a supply-and-demand issue,” Greene said. “That price will come down dramatically.”
One other complicating factor is the fact that marijuana is illegal in Florida except for medical use. Hemp comes from the same plant as marijuana but has a smaller amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that causes a high. Only chemical analysis can determine the THC level that separates a hemp strand of Cannabis sativa from a “hot plant.”
At several public workshops around Florida in June, industry advocates told Fried and her staff how they’d like to see the hemp business develop locally. Small farmers, big agriculture companies, marijuana fans and others weighed in on the myriad rules and regulations that must be presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture before the federal agency will consider approving a state’s hemp plan.
Fried is impatient to get USDA approval. “I’d like to see the first seeds in the ground in 2019,” she said at one of the workshops.
No matter Fried’s timeline or the federal response, she’ll have to wait a bit longer. Nobody knows for sure which plants will do best in the state’s various climates.
The sole legal cannabis farm in the state is in Homestead, at a University of Florida research station. It took lead researcher Zachary Brym almost five years to get permission to bring in seeds and plants from other states and countries. He and his assistants are tending two acres, testing for optimal growing conditions. They put their first seeds in the ground in May. So far, the seeds from China are producing the most robust-looking plants.
Yet, much more work and research are needed. What plants will be better for hemp fiber, for hemp seed and grain, for CBD? What plants will be off limits because of too much THC?
“I’m working as fast as I can,” Brym said, looking at his small plot of land at the research center. “We’ll get as much information and the best information to the farmers as fast as we can. Clearly, the enthusiasm in the state is there.”