In spring 2017, North Carolina licensed its first 23 hemp farmers. Cultivation of the newly legal crop was underway; seed was in the ground. Tom Melton, chairman of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission, expressed hope this marked the beginning of a success story.
Two years in, it is too early to say whether hemp will be a success. But it is a phenomenon.
In just the first half of this year, the number of hemp farmers has more than doubled to nearly 1,200. So has acreage (now more than 14,000), greenhouse space (5.4 million square feet) and leaf processors (nearly 700).
"It's fun to watch, and it's also a little frustrating and unnerving at times, " says Melton, who just retired as deputy director of N.C. State Extension. "Because nobody really knows what they're doing. It's really growing faster than knowledge."
We are in the early stages of hemp fever because the plant is in hot demand as raw material for CBD products. CBD --cannabidiol--is a compound some think can be good for arthritis pain, insomnia, high cholesterol, anxiety or you name it.
But the science is unsettled, and skittish regulators are trying to come up with CBD rules. Law enforcement is also nervous. Hemp is marijuana's non-stoner twin and sheriffs want test kits.
The excitement is about money, potentially billions. In 2014, Congress let states set up pilot programs to grow hemp, something that had long been illegal because of its ridiculous association with marijuana. The federal 2018 Farm Bill further loosened restrictions.
Thousands of farmers have jumped in from coast to coast, as have CBD processors ranging from mom and pop operations to large factories such as one in Wilson owned by Criticality LLC. It will employ more than 80 in a renovated tobacco warehouse.
The Brightfield Group research firm predicts the market for hemp-derived products could be $22 billion by 2022. Farmers are interested in taking their cut; hemp can in some cases net $10,000 per acre. "You're looking at $300 to $400 for corn, $500 to $600 for beans.... Tobacco, a thousand would be the top," Melton says. "So you're looking at 10 times what tobacco would provide you there."
But profits are in proportion to risks. If a crop tests higher than 0.3% for THC--the ingredient that creates marijuana's psychological effect--it has to be destroyed. That happens 10% of the time, according to Phil Wilson, director of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' plant industry division.