TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida farmers might not be held back from planting hemp next year even if the federal government has not signed off on long-awaited rule changes.
Holly Bell, Florida's director of cannabis, told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that, if all goes well, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' permitting for hemp could be available to farmers by the end of the year, with seeds in the ground in the spring.
State lawmakers this year approved a measure (SB 1020) that created a program to regulate cultivation of hemp, addressing issues such as the licensing of growers.
A potential hold-up remains the White House Office of Management and Budget signing off on new U.S. Department of Agriculture hemp-cultivation regulations.
However, Bell said Florida could follow other states that have allowed farmers to proceed based on an assumption the federal government will approve the new regulations, which clarify changes regarding the definition of hemp -- separate from federally prohibited marijuana -- made in a 2018 federal farm bill.
"The farm bill has seven things we have to comply with, that needs to be in our plan, that the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) wants you to have, and they've sent a signal out that if you have those things in your plan, you'll be accepted," Bell said. "The word they gave us was, that if you don't hear back from us, then that means we're good."
Bell noted that several states, including Colorado, Vermont, New York, Kentucky and Tennessee, have allowed farmers to proceed with hemp production after submitting their state plans months ago and haven't faced federal intervention.
"The feds haven't finished their rules, and they didn't want to review any plans until they had their rules finished," Bell said, in replying to questions from committee members. "Everybody else is doing it, so I would say that is precedence.
Bell was hired by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried this year after working as cannabis consultant in other states, including helping to build Tennessee's industrial hemp program.
Many farmers view hemp as a potentially lucrative new crop after Congress in 2018 legalized industrial hemp as an agricultural product. But Bell's approach to moving ahead without federal approval didn't have the support of some senators.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who noted there is ardent interest in hemp from Panhandle timber growers whose crops were decimated by Hurricane Michael last year, cautioned against taking action based on what other states have done.
"I was a high school principal and I've heard that, ‘Everybody else is doing it, Mr. Montford,' " Montford said. "And I'd say, ‘But you got caught.' "
Senate Agriculture Chairman Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is among citrus growers looking to convert some acreage to hemp, said he personally will wait for federal approval.
"My expectations would be there is so much hype here in the state for hemp, and rightfully so, that there will be some planting as soon as the certification process allows it to happen from the state level," Albritton said. "We may end up just figuring out what the answer is by doing it. I don't know. I will not be doing that. I'm going to wait for the feds to sign off, as a farmer."
Bell said the state department continues to work on issues such as establishing how hemp is processed and purchased and issues related to crop insurance and banking services.
Hemp, which hasn't been grown in Florida legally since the 1940s, has already attracted interest from more than 1,000 farmers. Bell said about 3,000 growers are expected to participate.
State rules will not cap the number of growers or the allowed acreage for hemp, which could replace or be rotated with existing crops, Bell said.