The South Carolina Department of Agriculture has announced 20 farmers who have been selected for the second year of the state’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program.
The growers were selected from 162 applicants. The 20 farmers will work with the 19 already participating in the pilot’s first year.
“Instead of 40 we could have easily picked 80 with no problems at all in terms of qualifications,” state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said. “We were looking for geographic disbursement around the state. We were looking for a mixture of experienced agriculturalists. We were looking for good marketing plans with a qualified processor.”
Farmers were selected from 24 counties statewide.
Weathers said, as expected, the program’s first year was a learning process for the initial farmers selected to grow up to 20 acres of industrial hemp. Among the “learning-intensive first year” issues: soil diseases, aphids, seed acquisition, processing and weather.
“Unfortunately we learned what hurricanes can do,” he said, referring to damage from Hurricane Florence. “Some of the plants were actually lodged over.”
In the second season, growers can plant up to 40 acres.
“We learned a lot of growing practices where Clemson’s extension folks were very vital to make the observations so that we can learn from these challenges,” Weathers said. “We’re trying our best to learn if this crop can be profitable for South Carolina.”
In addition to doubling the participation among farmers, more accredited universities will work with the pilot program participants: University of South Carolina, Medical University of South Carolina, South Carolina State University, Clemson University, USC Beaufort, Furman University and College of Charleston.
The 20-acre limit did not allow for enough yield to make hemp fiber profitable in the first year. Many farmers are having their crops processed into CBD oil. One is selling the seed to new farmers. To meet the demand for processing, Weathers said several companies have started operations in South Carolina and one even moved here from California. Some farmers created their own processing system.
“I like the idea of a farmer vertically integrating to capture move value of our crops,” he said. “That’s a goal that we have in South Carolina agriculture is to create more value off the crops that we grow.”
Before the CBD oil processors started operating in South Carolina, farmers considered transporting their crops to processors in North Carolina.
“North Carolina is certainly not far away but I’m glad that they don’t have to spend some of their profits in freight to carry their crops hundreds of miles,” he said.
While individual farmers have been harvesting and processing, Weathers said this being a pilot year, the department isn’t sure if the season would be considered normal or successful because there’s nothing with which to compare the numbers.
“They don’t have a lot of information other than checking with other states,” he said. “Given that this is our first year we don’t have a lot of historical information with which to compare.”