Hundreds want to grow hemp in North Carolina. But ‘a lot ... can go wrong’

Hemp is hot, unless your hemp is “hot.”

That was the message at a recent industrial hemp conference in Pittsboro that attracted about 300 people interested in growing the newly legalized crop. It’s the third year Chatham County has held the conference, which had to turn people away twice before, said local extension agent Debbie Roos.

“There are just more growers and more interest in CBD [cannabidiol],” Roos said. “Consumer demand has skyrocketed. And with the Farm Bill, it’s now legal to grow.”

Industrial hemp, visually indistinguishable from marijuana, can only be grown under tight government regulations. It’s back in favor with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. But it’s not as simple as dropping seeds in the ground and waiting for them to sprout, speakers said.

Hemp produces cannabidiol oil, a non-intoxicating extract known as CBD oil thought to have medicinal value. But it also produces small amounts of THC, the compound that makes marijuana illegal. More than 0.3 percent THC and the “hot hemp” must be destroyed just like marijuana, which has a THC content of 10 percent or more.

Hemp was on display at an industrial hemp production conference in Pittsboro at the Chatham County Agriculture Center where almost 300 people recently attended. Joe Johnson jjohnson@newsobserver.com

What to consider

The conference attracted large-scale farmers looking to diversify their crops to boutique growers looking to tap into the growing demand for CBD.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” Roos said. “We just want to provide people with as much information as we can. We also want to make sure they’re going in with their eyes wide open. As an extension agent, I’m not trying to, but I sometimes consider it a success if I talk somebody out of something if they’re not well-suited for it.

Hemp still is regulated by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, but the farm bill granted some relief to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to state agencies. Growers must apply for permits and detail their production plans to regulators, who can share it with law enforcement.

Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson said current rules are working.

“To date, we have not had any issues with hemp production,” Roberson said. “Current regulations seem adequate to inform us where hemp is located. Like everyone else, we are learning as this agricultural market re-emerges and takes root.”

After nearly 50 years of prohibition, hemp returned to the field in 2017 but only under strict research conditions. Now with restrictions eased, state officials expect to have registered growers in all 100 North Carolina counties soon. The number of growers is expected to surpass 700 this year, up from about 500 in 2018, officials said.

Hemp can be highly profitable to grow, but it also can cost a lot to plant.

Growing hemp could cost upwards of $15,000 per acre, according to N.C. State University researchers. Plants can range in cost from $5 to $7.50 or more. About 1,500 plants per acre is the most that can comfortably be planted, they said. They advised lining up a buyer or a processing company before planting the crop.

Thomas Penn, a small farmer from Forsyth County, was taking that advice. He currently grows vegetables he sells at farmers’ markets in Winston-Salem. He’s looking for something a little more profitable.

“You want to take this information with a grain of salt,” he said. “I think it’s best if you’ve been a farmer before you kind of maneuver through this. Thinking you can come in here and make a million dollars, I wouldn’t do it.”

What to produce

CBD oil production is getting most of the attention, with growers in Colorado, Montana and Washington having a competitive head start. But the long-term growth in hemp production will come from farmers who grow varieties that produce long fiber strands that can be used in textiles and even construction materials.

The major obstacle for growing these larger hemp varieties is the lack of processing plants. Currently, there are none in the state.

Hemp Inc. in Spring Hope is making oil absorbents from the kenaf plant but will be switching over to industrial hemp processing soon, according to its website.

“It’s a chicken and an egg thing,” said Scott Phopheter of Wilson-based Criticality. “The missing piece is industry processing.”

His company currently processes hemp only for oil. No end-user market has emerged yet for hemp fiber, he said.

That hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm Chatham County landowners Liz Clore and Logan Parker. They see industrial hemp’s potential for making sustainable construction products like hemp bricks.

“As the market grows and as growers get more experienced growing hemp, then I think the fiber and seed will become a more viable product,” Parker said.

On the menu

One of the treats of the conference was a buffet that included a hemp-inspired salad dressing.

The dressing was the creation of Sarah Sligh from Angelina’s Kitchen. She modified a mustard shallot vinaigrette recipe from the Food Network but substituted some hemp oil in place of extra virgin olive oil. It was almost completely gone compared with the other choice — spicy ranch — by the time dinner was over.

“I think it was a hit,” Sligh said. “We were inspired to create something with hemp oil because this is a conference about hemp.”

Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.