After two successful growing seasons, the Tar Heel State has proven itself to be among one of the more perfect places to grow and sell high-quality hemp plants and the many products extracted from them.

More and more “farmacies” such as The Hemp Boutique in Cary, Hempko in Apex, The Hemp Farmacy in Raleigh, and The Hemp Store in east Raleigh are springing up throughout the state; and, 72 new licenses were approved during the first week in January, bringing the total number of those allowed to grow this amazing agricultural crop in North Carolina to some 600.

With the farm bill signed into law on December 20 – removing hemp and hemp-derived CBD (cannabidiol) from the list of controlled substances, allowing for interstate commerce, and access to both crop insurance and competitive USDA grants – this booming industry is poised to burst at the seams of the restraints holding it back until now.

For a comprehensive summary of what the farm bill does for hemp nationwide, check out this summary (PDF) from HempSupporter.com.

The Good News

According to Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable who authored the summary linked to above, after “extensive scientific scrutiny,” both the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declare that “CBD is safe, no-toxic and non-addictive.”

The FDA has jurisdiction over products infused with CBD and has taken action against those who misrepresent its benefits. But statements made by FDA officials have led some state and local officials to question the legality of shops selling CBD-infused products.

Miller said he’s hopeful that his organization can work with the FDA to clarify these statements, making it clear that “CBD … should not be withheld from Americans that count on it for their health and wellness.”

As for North Carolina, while some may have concerns, it does not seem to be among the states with issues regarding shops selling CBD-infused products.

For some more good news, nothing about the application process for a license to grow hemp is going to change in 2019. Applications will continue to be submitted through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), reviewed and approved by the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission (NCIHC).

Going forward, it is uncertain whether potential growers will need to apply for an actual license. However, any type of grow operation will need to be registered so state officials know where it’s located and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) testing can be done.

As for banking issues, now that hemp and hemp-derived CBD are no longer listed as controlled substances, the consensus is that most banks and merchant services, credit and debit card companies, advertising and e-commerce platforms will no longer have issues dealing with money from and marketing of this legal and legitimate crop and products made from it.   

A New Plan

According to Phil Wilson, director of the plant industry division at the NCDA&CS, a new state plan for growing and selling hemp and products made with CBD oils and extracts – composed in cooperation with the commission and the N.C. General Assembly – is required to be submitted for approval to the USDA within 12-18 months of the farm bill’s passage.

“We’re working on the plan now and talking with legislators to see if there’s anything we need to tweak,” Wilson said. “We want to do this as quickly as possible.”

Officials say a plan is likely to be submitted by May or June of this year, after which the USDA has a month to respond.

As for the current plan, Wilson said temporary rules have been in place since the pilot program was created.

“What we have in there now is likely to stay,” he said.

There has been some talk of doing away with the bona fide farmer rule, for example, now requiring that only those who can show income from agriculture on their last tax return can apply for a license to grow hemp. But Wilson said that question has yet to be decided.

“We’re working on the plan now and talking with legislators to see if there’s anything we need to tweak,” Wilson said. “We want to do this as quickly as possible.”

Power to the People

Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, calls the hemp section of the new farm bill a “breath of fresh air.”

“It changes so much,” he said. Butler also applauds how the bill allows for states to create the standards, pending USDA approval, for how to manage the industry in their own backyards. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for North Carolina. It’s just important that growers are realistic, don’t go too big and sign contracts with buyers.”

He went on to say that while some have done business with a handshake in the past, everyone in this industry should now implement better business practices to ensure that farmers are protected and make money.   

Butler also lauds the fact that hemp farming is now “legitimate and professional nationwide,” in line with the FDA and USDA and “no longer having to deal with the DEA on interstate issues.”

“We’re not trying to hurt anybody or get anyone high,” he said. “There’s nothing shady or illegal going on. We’re just trying to move forward and help people.”

Despite the reduction in restrictive rules and the increase in potential for farmers and entrepreneurs to earn money, Butler says that hemp is not a solution to North Carolina’s problems, but an opportunity to replace lost elements of the state’s agricultural and textile industries with new ones.

“I encourage everyone getting into this business to approach it in the most professional way possible, so that the rest of the world will want to buy from North Carolina farmers,” he said. “This is an amazing plant and it can empower so many people.”

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for North Carolina.”

[Image: Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, at the Carolina Hemp Festival in Raleigh, Aug. 2018. The “score” is the final vote in the N.C. Senate for the industrial hemp bill. Photo by Rhiannon Fionn.]

Ahead of the Game

According to Dr. Sandy Stewart, vice chair of the NCIHC, and assistant commissioner of agricultural services with the NCDA&CS, the main take-away from the farm bill is that industrial hemp is no longer a research pilot program but a crop operating under the auspices of the USDA and FDA, not the DEA.

“This is a very exciting time,” he said. “We’ve got two growing seasons under our belt and farmers seem to have adapted well. The climate is conducive to growing and there’s a lot excitement about what we can produce in the field and seeing what we can do with the finished products.”

Stewart said the commission and the NCDA&CS have three objectives: to help foster the industry; ensure compliance with federal law; and ensure that products grown and sold in North Carolina protect the public health and safety.

Although there was and continues to be concern expressed by some in the state that hemp and its derivatives are not helpful, Stewart said there has been little resistance from the agricultural community.

“It’s a very promising agricultural product that can contribute considerably to the state economy,” he said. “We’re already accustomed to growing different crops and hemp fits into tobacco production very well. There is a high and growing level of interest in this crop.”

Going forward, Stewart said he hopes to have more processors across the state and believes cottage industries will continue to emerge as well. He advises those getting into the business to do their homework, know the market and understand their customers.

Larger companies are also interested in hemp as well. “How this shakes out is yet to be known, but I think the level of interest from tobacco companies show the real potential of this crop,” Stewart said. “In some respects North Carolina is ahead of the game because of the number of tobacco farms we have and how hemp can be integrated.”

He also contends that N.C’s pilot program has been much more open than South Carolina’s or Virginia’s, for instance. “Because we had more people participating we have more chances for innovation,” Stewart said. “That’s really set us up well to succeed in the hemp industry.”

“In some respects North Carolina is ahead of the game because of the number of tobacco farms we have and how hemp can be integrated.”

[The article continues below this time-lapse video, by Grand Baldwin, filmed during the 2018 hemp harvest at Appalachian Growers, in Franklin, N.C.]

Ode to the Hemp Commission

As chairman of the NCIHC, Dr. Tom Melton has overseen the pilot program since its inception in February of 2017. (When not serving in this capacity, he is also the deputy director of N.C. Cooperative Extension Service as well as state program leader for agriculture and natural resources and community and rural development programs at NC State.)

While the commission will stay in place for the time being, it will eventually cease to exist in its current capacity and NC State will no longer have any official involvement. An advisory group of some kind will likely be created within the NCDA&CS to offer input.

For his part, Melton says he doesn’t have a problem with the bona fide farmer rule and the NCDA isin favor of keeping it in place. But others are not so inclined and the issue will continue to be debated as the plan is finalized before being submitted to the USDA. While he describes the current rules governing the growth and sale of industrial hemp in North Carolina as rather general — covering fiber, seed and grain production without addressing CBD very much — Melton says the new plan will be more detailed and specific.

In evaluating the success of the pilot program to date, Melton says he thinks it has gone really well. “Most people feel the same and have been extremely appreciative of what we’ve done.”

He says the commission has tried to do a lot of education for the public as well as outreach to and education of law enforcement officials, who he says have been very responsive. As for any cases of illegality, “There have been very few incidents where someone has tried to abuse the system,” he said.

“People really want to grow industrial hemp.”

While the commission will stay in place for the time being, it will eventually cease to exist in its current capacity and NC State will no longer have any official involvement.

Gary Band

Gary Band

Reporter

Gary Band has worked as a reporter and editor since 1999 at weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, Vermont, northern New Jersey and western New York. He lives with his wife in Cary, N.C.  

[Header image by Grant Baldwin, taken at Appalachian Growers in Sept. 2018.]