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Florida Hemp Stakeholders Mull How To Grow Industry In Big Bend

Pictured here is a potted hemp plant. In the background are other potted hemp plants.
Robbie Gaffney
/
WFSU-FM
Stakeholders in Florida’s Big Bend region are trying to raise the profile of the local hemp industry.

Advocates for North Florida's burgeoning hemp industry say it could be taken to the next level, but it needs a boost. Local growers and processors are grappling with how to raise the profile with suggestions ranging from more grower awareness to the prospect of bringing a new processing plant to the region.

Graham and Kelsi Hartsfield own Double H Hemp, a small hemp farm in Tallahassee. They walk among their potted hemp plants on a hot summer day and point out a bloom at the tip of one of their plants.

"As this matures, this part will get bigger, and that's what you chop and trim," Graham Hartsfield says.

Pictured here is a close up of a potted hemp plant.
Robbie Gaffney
Some hemp plants on the Hartsfield's farm have started blooming early. The plant pictured here has a bud forming at its tip.

2020 was the first year Florida farmers could get licensed to grow hemp. And the Hartsfields jumped at the opportunity. Once their hemp was ready, they chopped and trimmed each bud.

"You have no idea how many hours I have behind a pair of scissors," Hartsfield says.

This year, they want to sell CBD oil. To do that, they need to take their hemp to a processing plant. And while there's one close by in Hamilton County, they may not be able to afford the processing fee. Hartsfield says that's one challenge for small hemp farmers like them.

"The farmers who have done this, they can't bet the farm on it. I have more land to grow this stuff on, but would it be smart is the question. Would it be profitable? How labor-intensive just this is, what's my reason to expand? Right now, I don't because it's a wild cat industry," Hartsfield says.

Pictured here are Kelsi and Graham Hartsfield.
Robbie Gaffney
Kelsi and Graham Hartsfield plan to harvest their hemp in mid-October of this year. Their goal is to convert the plant into CBD oil for sale.

Green Point Research is a hemp producer that owns the processing plant in Hamilton County. Its CEO is David Hasenauer. He says not all small farms can afford their fee, but they try to help everyone that comes their way.

“You help them out, and you give them the best rates that you can, but sometimes it's just trying to fit a square peg into a round hole where if their goal is to grow hemp and make money, there's a better way to do it. And we want to make sure that they know that," Hasenauer says.

Hasenauer also says portions of the hemp industry remain untapped in the region.

"We've really seen only the development of the CBD cannabinoid side of the business," Hasenauer says.

He says that leaves out the fiber side of the industry. Hemp can be processed into fiber for construction materials. But having the equipment to do that is pricey.

"You're going to need someone to make an investment of probably close to $20 million in what would be called a decortication facility, which is that first phase of fiber processing. And it's just a tremendous undertaking. But we do look at it, and we have adapted some of our equipment to be multipurpose for long-term use in that field, but we aren't there yet," Hasenauer says.

The Apalachee Regional Planning Council, which services counties in Florida's Big Bend, hopes to attract a processing plant that can convert hemp into fiber. But the group's Melissa Franklin says there must be enough farmers growing hemp to support that facility.

"It's one of those chicken or egg things. Farmers are going to be hesitant to come online if they aren't certain that they can get to a processor. And processors are going to be hesitant to come online if they aren't certain they're going to have the farmers," Franklin says.

Franklin says if the hemp's fiber side of the industry can gain a foothold in the region, it will help diversify the local economy. She points to the area's timber industry which was devastated during Hurricane Michael and says many of those farmers are still recovering. Her group hopes those timber farmers can switch to hemp.

"You can get the same amount of pulp from 16 weeks of hemp growth as you can from eight years of tree growth. So, it's a much quicker return for them," Franklin says.

Back on the Hartsfield's farm, Graham Hartsfield says farmers need an incentive to grow hemp.

"Maybe the state releases some sort of funding for farmers to grow this in small plots," Hartsfield says.

Hartsfield also says the state could set up a website that hooks up hemp sellers with buyers. He says more education is needed in the region to bring people on board.

"We got to educate the farmers. You got to convince the farmers on why you should grow this plant," Hartsfield says.

Meanwhile, hemp industry stakeholders like Hasenauer say Florida's hemp industry just needs time.