Industrial hemp has the potential to be a big cash crop for growers and business interests alike. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried knows this and has announced the members of the state’s new Hemp Advisory Committee, which will help guide the rulemaking as well as local emerging hemp industry development.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), the committee will meet monthly to develop a framework for the emerging hemp industry. The 20-member committee will advise on innovations and solutions from conception and production, to market entry and market growth, with an overall goal of advancing Florida as a national leader for hemp. Cannabis Director Holly Bell will be responsible for organizing the committee and helping to direct goals and workflow.

“We’re on the verge of a historic opportunity, a chance for farmers to access an alternative crop, consumers to access safe CBD products, and Floridians to participate in this new green economy, while strengthening agriculture and other sectors of Florida’s economy,” Fried remarked in a prepared news release.

Paul Rusnak is the Senior Managing Online Editor of Florida Grower, American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower and Greenhouse Grower magazines

Hemp oil in Arcadia

Arcadia has its first hemp oil products shop. The Your CBD Store, 11 W. Magnolia St., offers SunMed water soluable hemp edibles such as gummies, and in creams, liquids, oils and soft-gel capsules. The shop’s co-owner is Jim Harrington. He opened his first such shop in December in Port Charlotte. His partner is wife Amy Harrington. SunMed has more than 400 affiliate stores and works just in brick-and-mortar, Jim Harrington said. Hemp is considered an agricultural product and is regulated in Florida as such.

Obstacles in the hemp-oil trade are overcoming the marijuana stigma — hemp is a cousin in the cannabis family used over the centuries as fiber for clothing or rope — but it also has antioxident extracts linked to good health and to reducing some ailments. Its active ingredient is cannabidiol, or CBD. SunMed CBD is extracted in Colorado and has negligible THC content, the stuff in marijuana that gets users a high.

Harrington said a second challenge in his field is fighting other products that are watered down, too high in THC content or are altogether counterfeit. The key to authenticity is checking the label for third-party lab certification, expiration dates and lot numbers. And price.

“If it’s cheap,” he said, “don’t buy it.”

SunMed products will run $20-$90, depending on what it is, he said. The oils help with insomnia, pain, aches and depression, he said, and no prescription is required, as is true with medical marijuana use. Studies show that it works to limit seizures in kids. “Totally safe right off the shelf,” said Harrington, who rubs a CBD topical cream on a college football injury to ease the pain and to sleep., 941-587-9029

Keeping DeSoto citrus roots healthy

When citrus greening was first confirmed in Florida in the mid-2000s, most growers didn’t fully appreciate the devastation and massive change it would bring to the state’s signature crop. The Paul family might have had an early appreciation of those challenges, however. After all, Jack Paul II was among the first to find the disease’s vector, the Asian citrus psyllid, in a grove in 1998. He alerted family and friends that it was a serious find and meant trouble for the future.

John Paul III carried on the growing tradition, along with his sister Julie Obney, and Frank Vega, after Jack passed away in 2014. Paul Citrus Inc. now has about 2,400 acres of groves mostly in Highlands and Hendry counties.

In 2017, Paul started a new 550-acre planting on a large tract of land in DeSoto County where he implemented some newer thinking on tree densities and irrigation.

“My dad really wanted to plant on this land, but he was worried about citrus greening, so he held back,” Paul says. “My sister and I believed we could make it work and started planting in the spring right before Hurricane Irma. We have been recovering ever since and think we are getting trees on the right track after two seasons of good management after the storm.”

The trees planted before the storm were laid down by the winds and had to be stood up and rehabbed, but Paul expects they will produce about 50 boxes per acre next season.

As greening spread and growers and researchers developed programs to try to keep trees productive, it eventually became clear that healthy roots are the foundation of tree health in an HLB environment. The Pauls arrived at this conclusion early on.

“We were having this debate within our family about why greening spread so quickly once it was first confirmed,” Paul says. “Were the roots dying back only because of greening, or was it in part due to the sporadic droughts that were occurring during that time? We believed some of the root dieback might be due to the droughts.”

Paul began looking at irrigation methods that could better address root health and counter future droughts. One approach the family decided to try was subsurface irrigation.

“In the old days, it was all about water on and water off of the groves, especially in the Flatwoods,” Paul says. “With subsurface irrigation, we are trying to retain as much water as we can and keep those roots as moist as possible — not just where the emitters would be on microjets.”

The 550-acre planting in DeSoto County is irrigated using a subsurface, closed-seepage system fed mostly by three large tailwater recovery ponds. With the grove’s soil consisting of 85 percent Immokalee sand, water doesn’t stick around long from rainfall or with more traditional irrigation methods. According to a study by the St. Johns River Water Management District, the subsurface irrigation also saves water, cutting usage by 45 percent from evaporation losses alone.

“We are seeing more roots and improved tree health where we have the subsurface irrigation,” Paul says.

The 4-inch tiles are laid 36- to 40-feet apart depending on row spacing at about 3 feet below the surface. Water is pumped through the tiles from the three tailwater collection ponds that are positioned in a way to recycle water being applied to the groves as it flows down the flat, but slightly contoured land.

The land where the new groves are planted has a solid hardpan at about 5 feet below the surface. Paul says this is important because the subsurface irrigation does not perform as well on a more porous hardpan.

Weather stations and field sensors are installed in the groves to monitor conditions to help manage irrigation. Paul utilizes Ranch Systems technology to track soil moisture, salinity, and temperature. The system monitors weather conditions as well.

Paul says his fertilizer program has returned to a more traditional approach in recent years, partly for economic reasons to recover from the hard hit delivered by Hurricane Irma. The family’s groves in Hendry and Highlands counties lost up to 90 percent of their crop from the storm. Up to four applications per year are made for psyllid control in the groves. That is on the lighter side compared to some growers, but Paul believes it helps maintain beneficial insect populations.

Most of the acres in the new planting in DeSoto County was incentivized by Florida’s Natural Growers planting program. The program provides growers with a $10 per tree loan for planting. If the grower sticks with the juice processor for 10 commercial crops, the loan is forgiven.

According to Florida’s Natural, the incentive has been very successful. To date, more than 1.4 million trees have been planted because of this program. He believes in the future of Florida citrus but says it will take innovation and growers sharing ideas to ensure success. Paul says he is inquisitive by nature and open to experiment with alternative crops. In 2018, the state began to enforce rules regulating the harvest of saw palmetto berries to get a better handle on what had become an almost black-market trade marred by trespassing and dangerous working conditions for berry harvesters. The berries are used to make the popular dietary supplement for prostate health. Paul and colleague Ronnie Taylor thought it might be profitable to manage a 40-acre wild palmetto field like a cultivated crop on his Desoto County property.

“We have not done much with it yet, because we are still in recovery mode after the hurricane,” Paul says. “But in the coming year, we are going to look at applying some fungicides and other management practices on the plants to see if we can increase their productivity.

“There is a big market for these berries, and harvests are not allowed on state-owned land. As more land is developed, the availability of berries will become more scarce. It could be a profitable alternative crop.”

Frank Giles is editor of Florida Grower


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