Can Industrial Hemp Revamp South Carolina’s Farming Economy

Photo Credit: National Hemp Association

Warm dirt can’t come soon enough for South Carolina’s newly instated hemp farmers. This spring — when the ground is ready — the state’s first contingent of hopeful cultivators will sow seeds for its new Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. This fellowship of farmers, 20 strong, is ready to watch their cannabis grow.

Whether the state warms up to hemp is another question. That will depend almost entirely on whether that green can turn into gold.

The announcement came just days before last Christmas — South Carolina’s Department of Agriculture named 20 would-be hemp farmers in 15 counties throughout the state to grow up to 20 acres of industrial hemp each, for research purposes. Happy holidays, indeed.

This year 20 farmers can grow up to 20 acres each; next year the plan is to allow 40 farmers up to 40 acres each; and so on.

South Carolina is now one of the 33 states that have legal provisions for growing hemp. Joining places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Colorado — the leader in production — the state is easing its way into production, testing the viability of growing hemp in our soil and climate and the profitability of this hot-button crop.

South Carolina isn’t dead last, but we are late to the game.

Before we go too far down the rabbit hole of how industrial hemp could impact the entire state’s economy, let’s get really clear on this whole cannabis kerfuffle.

Hemp is not marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are both varietals of the cannabis sativa plant. Same plant family lineage; very different chemical makeup. Hemp plants, by definition, genetically contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the cannabinoid that gives marijuana plants psychoactive qualities.

South Carolina legislators made this clear when they followed the federal Farm Bill of 2014 and opened up South Carolina to the possibility of cultivating hemp: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina [that] … Hemp and marijuana are genetically different cultivars of the same plant species and are scientifically distinguishable from each other … Hemp is grown for scientific, economic, and environmental uses while marijuana is grown for narcotic use.”

How did hemp get lumped in with its red-eyed, controversial cousin?

That story goes back to Henry Ford, Du Pont petrochemicals and a distinctive character named William Randolph Hearst. Pre-prohibition hemp was a wonder-crop of sorts, the dream fuel of Rudolph Diesel, the tincture behind nearly every patent medicine before aspirin, and the namesake for “canvas,” which was derived from the word “cannabis” since sailboat sails used to be made from hemp fibers.

Then came the gas, petrochemical, and paper production industry. Together, the Du Pont company, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and William Randolph Hearst — an avid proponent of cheap pulp paper and an ardent racist who abhorred Pancho Villa and his supposedly cannabis-smoking Mexican troops — pushed a full ban on “marihuana” through Congress.

That was 1937.

Seventy-seven years later, South Carolina followed the Federal Government and flipped.

“Hemp has the potential to provide a cash crop for South Carolina’s farmers with broad commercial application that will enhance the economic diversity and stability of our state’s agricultural industry,” says Senate Bill 839, the law that started South Carolina down the road to this hopeful Pilot Program.

It all comes down to that bottom line number.

Whether hemp will prove profitable is the question on everyone’s mind — from legislators and law enforcement to agronomists and entrepreneurs. Everybody’s take is a little different and nearly everybody agrees that the buck will stop at the bank.

Jason Eargle, Cole Thompson, and David Dewitt are three of the men eagerly monitoring hemp’s progress. The entrepreneur, the farmer, and the agronomist.

Eargle took a break from his day job as a technology project manager to explain his vision for a hemp-rich South Carolina. Wearing an argyle sweater and thick glasses frames, he explained over espresso that hemp could be the cash crop our South Carolina farmers need.

“Our traditional crops here have recently experienced very small profit margins,” says Eargle, who also serves on The State Extension Advancement Council. “South Carolina farmers’ average age right now is like 60 years old. Our younger generations aren’t as interested in growing cotton, soybeans, corn, and peanuts. I started on this as a way of giving farmers another option.”

Hemp — like cotton, soybeans, or corn — is industrious to the extreme. A fiber and oilseed crop, it can be worked into twine, rope, paper, construction materials, carpeting, cosmetics, food, medicines, clothing, and even a cellulosic ethanol biofuel.

“CBD is obviously the hot product right now,” says Eargle, “but there are so many other cannabidiols we’re just discovering in the plant too. In my opinion, the long play is the industrial applications — fibers, fuel, textiles, seed, nutrition. It is the most useful and versatile plant on the planet in my opinion. I’m interested in it as a stable, sustainable crop for our state.”

Like most entrepreneurs, Eargle is fiery about his dream. He has good reason to be.

Eargle’s father worked at Clemson University for his entire career before dying unexpectedly from cancer. Hemp, says Eargle, is an ancient crop but a new idea to help South Carolina farmers and therefore continue his father’s — and Clemson’s — mission.

“I was supposed to be at the state house with him [my dad],” says Eargle of the day before he attended his first subcommittee hearing on the industrial hemp pilot program legislation. “He didn’t make it because he had what he thought was a kidney stone. Later that day I had a meeting with some of these folks working on the legislation. My dad’s kidney stone turned out to be a stage four cancer diagnosis, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

“At that meeting, I jumped in right away,” says Eargle, “I want to help farmers. That is what my dad’s whole life work was. I want to carry the torch and continue that legacy.”

Convincing farmers was relatively easy for Eargle: “Farmers have been hurting and this is something that gives them another chance when you talk about increasing profit margins, farmers are usually in.”

Lobbying the state legislature was another matter.

“Their immediate reaction was they didn’t know what the difference between hemp and marijuana is,” remembers Eargle. “It was clear to me that this is going to take some time and a full education initiative for our legislators, law enforcement, department of agriculture and universities on how this can help South Carolina. Those first hearings contained a lot of questions. Part of the confusion was the medicinal marijuana initiative on the table at the same time.”

One year later, the legislature was very clear on hemp.

“One year after we couldn’t get the initiative out of subcommittee, it passed the Senate 35 to one and the House 97 to zero,” says Eargle. “That speaks volumes to the open-mindedness of our legislators when it comes to economic development.”

There is a will. But it will take more than one year to see if there’s a way to turn hemp into South Carolina’s next big cash crop.

This is where the farmers come in.

Applicants for the coveted hemp growing permits were vetted based on strict qualifying factors. One must be a South Carolina resident, pass state and federal background checks, be paired with an accredited college or university partner, have stable financing, sign a contract with an industrial hemp manufacturer, and submit the GPS coordinates for all the land where the industrial hemp will be grown, along with the $50 non-refundable application fee. Most importantly, one must have strong agricultural experience.

Two of the 20 permits went to former Republican state representative Harry Bancroft (Chip) Limehouse III and former Clemson football coach Danny (Lee) Ford II. That raised eyebrows.

“Obviously Danny Ford is going to get press,” as Eargle says.

The other 18 farmers are a wide spread across the state, including a Patrick Jamison Jr. of Carolina Fresh Farms LLC — known for selling sod and grass in the Columbia area — and a Steven Neal Baxley Jr. of Atkinson Farms, which cultivates Mullins-famous strawberries.

Think of it like the agricultural equivalent of not putting all your eggs in one hemp-fiber basket.

Cole Thompson, Vice President of Rex Thompson Builders Inc., is a farmer. He did not get a permit, but if he had, Thompson’s dream was to revitalize his family’s old farm on the Johnsonville Highway in Prospect. It was a farm financially supported by his father’s family for 160 years by growing tobacco.

“None of my family under the age of 45 still lives in these areas due to having to find work elsewhere,” says Thompson, who watched the decline of tobacco morph into a dispersal of family farmers. “When tobacco was king in these areas, it brought other manufacturing jobs to these towns. So it dawned on us that without a new cash crop to replace tobacco the foundation would not be in place to get ‘Small Town South Carolina’ back to work and thriving again.”

“Nuclear Energy and lack of oversight has really put a black eye on our state,” continues Thompson. “Our energy consumption in this state alone could put our state’s farmers back to work, all the while protecting our state against deforestation.”

For Thompson, farming hemp could be the key to rebuilding South Carolina’s now squelched Tobacco Belt.

“We will be applying again in 2018,” he says of his LLC. “We are not the kind of people that give up on any aspect of this new business in our state … The program will be a success as long as South Carolina Legislature and the people of South Carolina continue to stand behind and beside our farmers.”

This is where David Dewitt, the agronomist, comes in. He is literally standing beside the hemp farmers, and he isn’t sold quite yet.

Dewitt, one of the university experts assigned to the Pilot Program, is a tobacco farmer of 25 years turned agronomy agent for Clemson extensions. Clemson selected him for a hemp reconnaissance mission of sorts, sending Dewitt to places like North Carolina and Kentucky to investigate those state’s growing efforts.

“My biggest take away is that this is very much a pilot program. There are a lot more questions than answers,” says Dewitt.

The biggest question mark of all: Can we turn hemp into money?

“I know some farmers are looking for something that’s going to save their farm financially. I just do not see that happening yet,” says Dewitt, who says the first plants likely won’t be seeded until early April, when the ground warms. “I recommend seeing how it goes, focus on planning dates, and get a few samples out there, not grow it for profit yet … I would hope that they’ll at least break even.”

The farmers are still working out where to buy seed at this point, according to Dewitt.

“One of the ideas is that tobacco is losing its ability to help South Carolina. I was intrigued by this being an alternative to the tobacco production,” he admits. “We’re a long way from that, I think. It’s more about creating a possible industry and a product, not that we’re going to save the farm with the crop we plant this year.”

Plus, “there’s still a lot of kind chuckling, especially in South Carolina, about ‘Oh, look at the pot dealers,'” Dewitt says.

For all the doubters, Eargle has a mic drop: “You can go to Whole Foods right now and buy shampoo, lotion or nutritional seed made from hemp. So why can’t our farmers grow it and try to participate in that revenue promise?”

Hopefully this year will answer his rhetorical question. Will hemp grow in South Carolina soils? Can a fashionable crop draw younger generations back to farming? Are the profit margins enough to make hemp economically viable?

“If these 20 farmers can get a few acres in the ground, I think that’ll be a great accomplishment,” says Dewitt.

The entrepreneurs, the farmers, the agronomists, and the State — they are all waiting to watch the cannabis grow.

“Whenever I finished my testimony in front of the House or Senate hearings I always closed with a quote from Thomas Jefferson,” says Eargle: “‘the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant into its culture.'”

Warm dirt can’t come soon enough.