Twenty out of more than 130 applicants were awarded permits to participate in South Carolina’s new hemp pilot program.
South Carolina’s new hemp pilot program is now ready for launch, after 20 farmers were selected to receive the state’s first permits to grow up to 20 acres of the crop. South Carolina became the 31st U.S. state to legalize hemp cultivation last May after Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law House Bill 3559. The pilot program allows the growing of hemp for research purposes.
South Carolina’s hemp program allows for the cultivation of hemp under the regulation of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. While officials with the department were initially concerned that there wasn’t going to be enough interest, more than 130 farmers applied for the available hemp growing permits.
Among those awarded permits is Danny Ford, Clemson University’s first national championship football coach, and former state representative Chip Limehouse of Charleston.
“I’ve spent more hours on a tractor than I can remember,” said Limehouse, whose family has been farming for eight generations and currently owns a 150-acre farm in Aiken County. He says he intends to plant his hemp crop in mid- to late-March.
The farmers selected are dispersed throughout 15 of the state’s 46 counties, most of which are more agriculturally focused like Marion, Florence, and Charleston. To conduct research, farmers will partner with state universities, including South Carolina State University, University of South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and USC-Beaufort.
“We tried to do a geographic dispersion around the state and a little clustering when we did,” said Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. “Climate, Elevation. This will be a big learning curve.” He added that narrowing the field to 20 was challenging, saying, “We could have easily had 40 to 50 legitimate permittees.”
Applicants had to pass a State Law Enforcement background check and have a contract with a buyer.
Can Hemp “Rescue” South Carolina’s Agriculture?
A hemp industry could prove particularly valuable to South Carolina, where rice and indigo industries that once made South Carolina the richest colony in the new world have since faded into obscurity. Cotton continues to provide revenue for state farmers, but has reportedly declined in market value.
“We need the opportunity for diversification,” said Weathers. “This is a chance to add to our crop mix.”
After this initial year, South Carolina’s hemp law calls for the program to expand to 40 farmers planting up to 40 acres. Afterward, the agricultural department and state’s research universities will analyze the program and decide whether it should be expanded further.
“I think South Carolina is poised to be on the front end of hopefully, a great new agricultural boon,” said Limehouse.
“This could be the next indigo, rice, or cotton for South Carolina. It could rescue South Carolina agriculture,” he added.
Hemp Farming in the U.S.
Hemp, grown for its seeds and stalk, is thought to be among the longest domesticated crops in history. The plant has myriad uses from food to clothing to plastic composites to cannabidiol (CBD) hemp oil supplements.
While hemp is a cannabis plant, unlike its cousin marijuana it contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound used recreationally. THC contains only up to 0.3% THC, about 33 times less than the least potent marijuana.
However, the hemp industry has slowly started to return to the U.S. in recent years. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the Farm Bill to permit state-legal hemp pilot and research programs.
“I’m excited to be chosen to be part of the initial pilot program because of the many practical uses for hemp that we don’t even know about yet,” Limehouse said. “Why hemp was banned to start with I don’t’ know. Hemp is not marijuana, but I think it’s high time that we have medical marijuana.”
Since 2014, more than 30 states have passed laws establishing programs that allow for the cultivation of hemp. Colorado currently dominates the nation’s hemp industry, producing more than double what other states produce.