POLK COUNTY – According to the latest United States Department of Agriculture “Abandoned Citrus” report, there are 8,533 acres of abandoned citrus in Polk County. The citrus greening epidemic has devastated Florida’s citrus industry, reducing crop output by around 60 percent since 2005.
As some scientists look for ways to rescue the citrus industry, other scientists, farmers and even some state legislators in Tallahassee are suggesting that hemp could replace citrus in places where groves have been abandoned due to citrus greening.
Rep. Sam Killebrew (R – Winter Haven) and Senate Agriculture Chairman Ben Albritton (R – Bartow) recently filed companion bills which would create a pilot program to study the possibility of making the cultivation of hemp legal again: HB333 and SB1058.
Sen. Rob Bradley (R – Fleming Island) filed a hemp-related bill — SB1020 — around the same time.
Hemp is derived from cannabis sativa, but has much less tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than marijuana. President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law in November, making hemp legal for interstate commerce, but the law is written in such a way that makes it up to individual states to determine whether to make hemp legal.
The Florida legislative session starts March 5 and will determine whether Florida will make hemp legal and, if so, how to go about regulating it.
Longtime hemp advocate, and recent applicant for the first Florida Director of Cannibis, Steve Edmonds said the reasons why cultivating hemp would be good for Florida farmers is that hemp will grow practically anywhere, requires very little irrigation beyond rain and requires very little fertilization.
All this means cultivating hemp could potentially be much more profitable than owning an unused orange grove.
With Florida growing explosively in population, water availability has also become a problem. Growing hemp instead of a more thirsty crop could help keep the Floridan Aquifer at healthy levels, and keep water clean because less fertilizer is needed. Taxes collected from hemp groves could also help pay for additional water infrastructure projects.
The problem, Edmonds said, is that two of the three bills being considered would take longer to implement and would require more regulatory paperwork than the third bill.
The two bills sponsored by by Rep. Killebrew and Sen. Albritton would create a pilot program so that staff and students at the University of Florida and Florida A & M University could study which hemp seed is best for Florida, and additionally study how best to implement a hemp cultivation industry. The bill sponsored by Sen. Bradley would simply decriminalize hemp, reducing the amount of government regulation, Edmonds said.
“House Bill 333 and Senate Bill 1058 bottleneck everything through the university system,” Edmonds said. “They are treating hemp like nuclear waste when it should be treated like a vegetable.”
Those who have an opinion on the matter should reach out to legislators now, the onset of the 2019 legislative session.
County residents who are interested in learning more are encouraged to attend the Florida Hemp Hootenanny March 16 at the American Legion Post 95 Memorial Auditorium in Frostproof at 111 W. First St.
Contact Charles A. Baker III at firstname.lastname@example.org.