Georgia farmers could have a new cash crop at their fingertips.
After legislators enacted the Georgia Hemp Farming Act in May 2019, researchers at the University of Georgia wasted no time to research the growth of industrial hemp. Five months later, they’re ready for the second hemp harvest.
Hemp is the fiber of the cannabis plant, and industrial hemp is just that—hemp sold for commercial purposes. You find it in rope, clothing, paper and more.
Tim Coolong, a researcher and associate professor at UGA, is leading the process at UGA’s hemp field in Watkinsville. He and a team of two others have planted 42 varieties of the plant, some of which were imported from southern Europe.
The goal is to determine the yield amount so farmers can budget accordingly. In other words, farmers could add another crop to their fields and their pockets. As it stands, however, only academic researchers can grow industrial hemp in Georgia.
“Learning a new crop, developing information, we haven’t grown this crop legally for 70 odd years,” Coolong said. “Most of the larger farmers I’ve spoken to are looking at this as just another crop they might utilize to increase revenue.”
From planting the seed to harvesting, the process takes hundreds of hours of labor.
After the crop is harvested at UGA, the plant is dried out, stripped, weighed and then composted. For farmers, the plant would go to a processor to be refined and purified.
The post-harvest process can be tedious, but Thomas Bagby, a research technician, enjoys it.
“I just stand out here, listen to audio books, and strip hemp,” Bagby said. It takes him 40 minutes to an hour to strip five plants.
Hemp dates back to 8,000 BC, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It comes from the cannabis plant, the same plant from which marijuana is derived. Growing hemp for industrial purposes could previously land you behind bars. That is until legislators signed the Agricultural Act of 2014 into law. The bill permits academic institutions to grow industrial hemp for research purposes. The institutions conducted “agricultural pilot programs, which were intended to study the growth, cultivation, or marketing of industrial hemp,” according to the bill. It was renewed in 2018. Farmers in some states are also permitted to grow the hemp.
This was on the federal level. On the state level, Georgia lagged behind until May 2019, when it passed the Georgia Hemp Farming Act permitting academic researchers to grow. While industrial hemp could be Georgia’s next lucrative cash crop, farmers are still unable to grow hemp. They are hoping legislators will move forward in the process by the spring 2020 season.
Hemp vs. Marijuana
Researchers must monitor the THC levels in the hemp. THC is the mind-altering component in marijuana. If the levels in the hemp exceed 0.3%, the crop becomes psychoactive and must be destroyed. To avoid this, farmers and researchers test the samples weekly and will prematurely harvest.
Both are varieties of the cannabis plant, but the main difference is the THC level. Hemp’s THC level is lower than 0.3%, which means it is not psychoactive. Marijuana’s THC level is higher than 0.3%, which means it is psychoactive. More information about the differences can be found on the Middlebury Institute’s “Hemp vs. Marijuana” website.
Coolong and Bagby found that the crop grew better in cooler weather but still successfully harvested their first batch over the summer. As of Nov. 6, they had not harvested the second batch, but they expect to harvest the hemp soon to avoid the approaching cold temperatures.
Ashley Soriano is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs.
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