From Fellsmere to Indiantown, Florida’s Treasure Coast farmers are digging into the promising venture of hemp and hoping for a strong harvest
And the motivations can extend beyond just profit or seeking alternatives to citrus.
“Our passion is education,” said Bill Brown, 44, who runs Carlsward Farms in Indian River County with his wife, Tiere Brown. “I had a lot of pain from kickboxing when I was young. Someone told us about CBD. I started using it and I wanted to learn more about it because it was helping.”
What’s the difference between hemp and marijuana?
After the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began the approval and regulation of hemp growth in 2020, the Browns became one of 27 licensed hemp growers on the Treasure Coast and nearly 800 in the state, records show.
Decriminalization of hemp by Congress in 2018 allows farmers to grow the plant and manufacturers to make textiles and an array of CBD products, which studies show have therapeutic benefits. CBD is produced as everything from oils, creams and roll-ons to oral liquids, capsules and edibles to smokable vapes.
Hemp is naturally associated with marijuana because both come from the same plant species: cannabis sativa, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
They are legally distinguished based on their THC content. Once a hemp plant exceeds 0.3% THC, it is considered marijuana. To legally grow hemp in Florida, farmers must monitor the THC content and uproot the plants before they cross that threshold.
Hemp farms an alternative to houses
The market for the farmers is already there.
“Florida is considered the No. 1 consumer of CBD products in the world,” said Carlos Hayden, owner of Florida Hybrid Solutions, a hemp grower in Indian River County. He started the company in 2019 and has previous experience growing cannabis.
“We have a huge market here; and internationally, Florida-grown hemp is going to be in demand. Hemp is a revolutionary crop. It’s going to bring back American farming.”
Hemp will allow farmers to diversify their offerings, said Christine Kelly-Begazo, agriculture agent and director of the University of Florida Extension Service office in Indian River County.
“There’s a serious concern that if a new crop isn’t found, a lot of citrus land could be developed for houses,” she said. “I don’t see hemp farming replacing citrus, but providing an alternative crop for growers.”
Thousands of products can be made from industrial hemp, with most being divided into three major sections; seed, fiber and CBD.
Seed production can be used for medications, health foods, cosmetics and biofuels.
Fiber production could include rope and building products, including a concrete-like substance called “hempcrete.” Fiber is used in clothing and other fabrics and environmental remediation.
“CBD was all the craze,” Kelly-Begazo said. “But the uses for hemp go beyond that. I’d like to see the emphasis more on building material and fabric. It’s a much more stable market.”
While plenty of Florida farmers are finding they can grow hemp, there’s still infrastructure needed in the state for processing the plant in its various products, said Bruce Vanaman, CEO of the Colorado-based Evello International. He’s set up IRC Botanical Processing Solutions in southern Indian River County and wants to sell his patented technology to processing plants.
“We’ll need hundreds of these processing plants,” said Vanaman, who is a member of the Florida Hemp Council, a private collection of industry leaders aiming to help farmers and others associated with the state’s newest agricultural venture.
Evello’s sole plant in Florida will be the one south of Vero Beach. Vanaman, who has been in the legalized marijuana and hemp industries for nearly two decades, chose the area because it’s a central location in the state and has easy access to Interstate 95.
Does hemp grow well in Florida?
IFAS is continuing to study hemp growth in the state to help farmers learn the best practices. Florida A&M University also has a hemp research project, Kelly-Begazo said.
Some Treasure Coast farmers grew their first hemp crops last year to determine how well the region would do for the plant.
“There are some challenges,” Kelly-Begazo said. “Hemp needs some irrigation, but it doesn’t like standing water at all.”
A lot of the soil along the Treasure Coast is sandy, so it leeches water quickly.
“But in Indian River, we have some soil with clay layers that can hold water so that it sits for weeks and this would be detrimental to hemp,” Kelly-Begazo said.
At Carlsward Farms, the Browns tried a small indoor grow, then an outdoor grow, and found success for each. The couple expects to sell CBD oil with their harvests in a few months.
At Florida Hybrid Solutions, Hayden found mixed results based on the season. The rainy season of summer wasn’t so fruitful, but he described his fall crop as prosperous. He harvested that batch in March, and expects to be able to harvest about five times a year.
Hayden plants hemp seeds directly in the ground — no need for germinating sprouts — to be harvested in 50 to 80 days.
An acre of hemp could net from $4,000 to $8,000 a year, depending on the farms’ cost per acre, Hayden said. A liter of processed CBD oil can value from $1,200 to $3,900.
Hemp growers return to Florida
Hemp isn’t just bringing in business from other states, such as Vanaman’s processing plant. It’s also bringing back Floridians who have had interest in the cannabis industry, but left to pursue it in other parts of the country.
“I was born and raised in Palm Beach County,” said Ryan Singh, 30, CEO of CuraFarm, which has operated in Colorado and California. “When they [Florida] opened up hemp last year, we all decided to come back.
“I’ve been coming to Indiantown since I was in high school, so we bought four acres of farmland there. It’s agriculturally friendly, and we know the lay of the land.”
He’s planning for his Indiantown crop to be turned into balms. He’ll have the machinery to make that happen by the end of summer.
“When I saw the licenses were coming available in Florida in January 2020, I was in the process of deciding whether to scale up in California,” Singh said. He since closed his California operations, but has a dispensary in Colorado and 16 acres in Oregon.
Singh is keenly interested in the medical benefits of the crop. Numerous studies have found CBD, derived from hemp, reduces the number of epileptic seizures, and in some cases, eliminates them.
“I tend to see mothers whose kids have epilepsy or autism,” Singh said. “Many hemp products can help with that.”