Florida is edging closer to a legal hemp industry. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) wrapped its final rulemaking workshop Monday.
Farmers, lobbyists and officials packed the auditorium of the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee to ask questions and share thoughts, in the the culmination of three days of workshops across the state. Nikki Fried, state agriculture commissioner, told the crowd it’s about creating a partnership between her department and farmers.
“We can do all the work that we want drafting these [rules], but if we don’t hear from the public and from the people who want to be farming, and cultivating, and manufacturing and getting these products to market," Fried said.
One of the key takeaways from the workshops is the difficulty of getting the industry off the ground.
There are a number of regulations for growers looking to import hemp plants from other states where the industry is up-and-running. Growers worry this could bottleneck the industry as an influx of people rush to import the plants. But Fried said ensuring quality-imported plants is vital to a healthy agriculture industry.
“We have to do a balancing act with plants," Fried said. "The plants that we have seen, that have come in already for the pilot program, all had bugs and pests on it."
Fried is urging farmers to buy seeds from one of the many licensed seed banks across the country – and even the globe – instead of mature plants.
A number of lawmakers this legislative session floated hemp as a new wonder crop for the state. Fried said hemp has the potential to be a multi-billion-dollar industry, while many traditional crops have sagged in recent years due to natural disasters and foreign imports.
David Avant, a sixth-generation timber farmer in Gadsden and Leon counties, told FDACS officials at Monday's workshop he sold his entire timber crop worth around $250,000 for just $17,000.
"I just sold some long-leaf pine I planted when I was 25," Avant said. "Thirty years later, I got a $1 [per] ton for it eight months after that storm."
Avant said he's now hoping to farm hemp.
The 2018 federal Farm Bill removed hemp from a list of controlled substances, opening it up to states to draft regulations.
Lawmakers this session passed a bill (SB 1020) giving FDACS permission to draft rules, now sitting on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. He has to act on it before Saturday or it will automatically become law.
FDACS will continue to accept feedback on the proposed rules through mid-July. Once the rules are finalized, the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) must approve them before the program can get underway.
Fried saidher department is moving as fast as possible, but the USDA has signaled it won’t be approving any plans until it creates its own sample plan.
Nonetheless, Holly Bell, the state's cannabis director, told the Economic Club of Florida last month that she expects to have hemp plants in the ground by late fall of this year.
Fried is optomistic the department can stick to that timeline.