John Nix: Industrial hemp might be ENC's new cash crop

John Nix: Industrial hemp might be ENC's new cash crop

A hemp plant grows in Lenoir County. Photo courtesy of Lazy Gator's Hemp Farm, LLC.

There's a new cash crop blending into the fabric of Eastern North Carolina and the rest of the Tar Heel State. The tobacco industry has changed in the last several decades, both regulatory and in the way business is done.

I, like many Lenoir County youth, grew up cropping and hanging tobacco in stick barns for curing. As a teen, I worked at Central Tobacco Warehouse unloading and displaying sheets of tobacco for the sale. What a glorious sound those auctioneers made, as the buyers in white starched shirts and brim hats promenaded down the aisle flipping and feeling the tobacco! That perfect picture is affixed in my mind.

But those were different days and those days have passed.

At a public information forum at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Center in Lenoir County on July 24, with a packed room of about 125 growers or potential growers, I learned a little more about industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp is on the rise and could be an economic boon and agricultural commodity for ENC, from field to shelf. The 2014 Farm Bill included language to allow hemp production with certain restrictions. In 2016, U.S. hemp production was at $688 million. Currently, about 50 percent of the hemp products used in the U.S. are imported from Canada.

The list of practical uses for hemp is immense, from medicinal oils, lip balms and clothing to automotive products and animal bedding. The woody fibrous stem can be processed a number of ways and even used to meet required green initiatives. There are hundreds of uses.

Hemp and cannabis are two different strains from the Cannabinoid family. The hemp plant we are discussing contains less than 0.3 percent THC; the psychoactive element found in cannabis is at much higher levels, 25-28 percent, and remains illegal in North Carolina.

Industrial hemp can't get you high but it can improve our local economy. Practical uses for hemp is age-old and the list of uses too long to publish here. In fact, the Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper.

To grow hemp in N.C., farmers must apply for a license through the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Through the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, the complexities of growing and selling industrial hemp are made a little easier.

There are currently 11 licensed growers in Lenoir County with about 500 growers statewide. The three parts of the plant farmers focus on are seed, fiber and flower. The seed is used for products like shampoo and lip balm, while the fiber is used for industrial filler, automotive products and animal bedding. The flowering part of the plant is used mainly for medicinal purposes.

While the pilot program offers support, there are a few regulatory and legislative obstacles to navigate if hemp is to blossom as a big cash for ENC. I hope to follow that process and bring you more information on this industry in a series of articles.  We will follow local growers and discuss the challenges and potential economic impact for our area. Stay tuned!

For more information, visit the N.C. Department of Agriculture information page on the hemp pilot program at www.ncagr.gov/hemp.

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