Monday, May 23, 2016

North Carolina Hemp commission receives funding, begins hiring search

By Gavin Stone

North Carolina farmers with aspirations of growing industrial hemp have been struggling to raise the money needed to set up the framework for a functioning hemp industry. 
The funds were needed to fund the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission as part of Senate Bill 313, which became law in October without a signature from Governor Pat McCrory. The commission could not be funded by federal money because of budget restrictions requiring the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association (NCIHA), the lobbying group that was the driving force behind this legislation, to add language in the bill saying that they would raise the $200,000 initial operating expenses of the commission themselves through private donations.  
This money will go toward hiring the initial staff of the commission, which will have five members: the commissioner of agriculture, a chief of police, a sheriff, a professor from a state university (either from NC State or NC A&T) who teaches agricultural science and a full-time farmer with more than 10 years of experience.
“It’s been a consistent effort across the board,” said Warren Williams, director of operations for the NCIHA.  
The NCIHA presented Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler with the money last week, marking the next step toward full industrial hemp production. The money was raised through the joint efforts of the NCIHA and BioRegen Innovations Cooperative. 
Several hundred individual donors representing a diverse strain of the North Carolina farming community gave donations that ranged from single dollars to a $20,000 contribution, according to Williams.
“[The diversity of donors] should tell the legislators that North Carolina wants hemp, and it’s going to be a viable crop and the farmers can’t wait to get it in the ground,” Williams said. 
As part of the bill, NC State and NC A&T will conduct pilot research programs to study the optimal conditions for producing hemp and its potential applications. Steve Lommel, associate dean for research at NC State, said that NC State was in a “holding pattern” until this money got raised. 
Funding for the commission took longer than the proponents of SB 313 would have liked, Williams said.  
“We believed we would have the money by Thanksgiving of last year, so it took a while to explain to farmers what a profound impact this could have on North Carolina agriculture,” Williams said. 
According to Williams, the hesitation to support the growing of hemp comes from its status as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which dates back to 1970. Hemp is the same species of plant as marijuana but contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC, while recreational marijuana averages 10 percent on average (though it can reach 24 percent, according to a listing by High Times). 
States could legally produce hemp for research purposes after the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill; however, they are still required to get a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency or risk federal charges or property confiscation, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not allow industrial hemp production at the federal level, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Because of this, the U.S. imports hemp from countries such as Canada and China. The total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2015 was about $573 million, according to the Huntington News. 
The global market for hemp has been estimated at over 25,000 products ranging from construction and insulation materials, to clothing, to pharmaceuticals, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. 
Williams said that for farmers who are looking for  a crop to replace tobacco, the crop once referred to as the “Billion Dollar Crop” in a 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics, could finally deliver that revenue stream.
“A lot of farmers needed another cash crop and [hemp] has the potential to become that crop and overtake tobacco, which farmers can no longer rely on,” Williams said. “The opportunity is there. It’s not single function crop, you can produce a variety of products and it’s something that we have to import anyway so why not grow it here?” 
Currently, there is limited infrastructure for North Carolina hemp farmers, and in order to reach the manufacturing potential for hemp’s broad applications, new facilities will need to be built, according to a press release. 

“We are excited about the possibility of a spring 2017 hemp crop, but there is still a lot of work to be accomplished,” Troxler said during the meeting last week. 

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