RALEIGH, N.C. — The field where corn grew last year could be covered this summer in plants that look a lot like marijuana.
North Carolina is calling for farmers to grow industrial hemp as part of a statewide test. The plant, a nonintoxicating cousin of marijuana, can be used to produce many products such as cloth and oils that might open new markets for farmers struggling with low prices on conventional crops.
“There has been a tremendous amount of interest in growing hemp,” said Sandy Stewart, director of the Research Station for the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Resources.
Industrial hemp is in the same genus – cannabis – as marijuana and their plants look identical, Stewart said. The federal government outlawed cannabis in the 1930s.
Roughly 30 nations, including Canada and most of Europe, grow hemp for industrial use. American farmers and others lobbied for what could be a profitable crop here. Congress passed a law in 2014 to allow test projects for hemp farming. North Carolina followed the next year with a law to allow a test program, and Virginia did the same last year.
This plant is different from marijuana. Industrial hemp contains three-tenths of a percent or less of THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. That is not enough to have any narcotic effect, Stewart said. Marijuana contains an average of 10 percent.
Even hemp’s scientific name of cannibis sativa means “useful” hemp, according the National Hemp Association.
“Hemp has absolutely no use as a recreational drug,” the association website says.
Its use instead goes back thousands of years for making paper and cloth. Early copies of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, according the association’s website. Levi’s jeans were first made of hemp sail cloth, it said.
Interested North Carolina farmers must apply for a license from the state’s Industrial Hemp Commission. State agriculture agents will monitor and test the crops to make sure they don’t contain THC. Growers will have to report each acre to the state giving precise locations using GPS technology.
David Schmitt, chief operating officer of Industrial Hemp Manufacturing LLC, says his Spring Hope, N.C., business is ready to contract with farmers to grow the crop. One potential customer is Volvo Truck North America in Greensboro, Schmitt said.
Hemp can be made into materials for auto interiors such as door panels and head liners, he said.
“We can grow this in North Carolina and ship it to an end user in North Carolina,” Schmitt said. “That will be cool.”
Schmitt has long been making products from kenaf, another legal cousin of hemp. His company produced an absorbent material used in the cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf Coast.
The same equipment transforming kenaf also will make products from hemp, Schmitt said.
But the idea of growing hemp has not reached eastern North Carolina, where fertile fields stretch over thousands of acres producing some of the state’s highest yields.
“It’s news to me,” said Don Parks, manager of C.A. Perry & Son in Weeksville. His company buys grains from farmers in the region and is a center for agriculture news.
“I think economically, if it proves viable, farmers would see it as another option,” Parks said. “I can’t wait to see somebody try it.”
Farmers will grow, harvest and market hemp, working closely with state agents to test its value including how well it will sell, what soils are best, its resistance to insects and whether the same cultivation equipment used on crops such as cotton can do the job, Stewart said.
Hemp can be made into cloth, rope, food, fuel, paint, paper, particleboard, plastics, seed, seed meal and seed oil. The products are 100 percent recyclable, Schmitt said.
“You buy hemp jeans or a hemp shirt and they’re going to last forever,” he said.
At least 17 states allow test programs to grow hemp, according to the National Hemp Association. Kentucky is among the leaders, approving 209 applications in 2017 to cultivate up to 12,800 acres for research purposes, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
States still are working out how best to use this plant needed more than a century ago for rope-making in an economy dependent on sailing ships and their miles of rigging, Stewart said.
“I don’t feel like North Carolina is late,” he said.
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— Jeff Hampton, The Virginian-Pilot via The Associated Press
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