FILE - Hemp

A hemp field in summer.

The Florida Department of Agriculture expects to receive 8,000 applications by December and issue 3,000 cultivation permits early next year when the state rolls out its new industrial hemp program.

Some officials estimate the crop could eventually spawn a $30 billion annual industry in the Sunshine State but, as the Senate Agriculture Committee learned Tuesday, the rosy prospectus comes with thorns.

While 37 states have authorized industrial hemp programs in the two years since the crop was legalized under the federal 2018 Farm Bill, all await approval and guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Yet, according to HempBenchmarks.com, there are already more than 400,000 acres producing hemp in 34 states under the 2014 Farm Bill’s pilot program, outpacing processing capacity and market development. As a result, the new domestic commodity’s price has been falling since May.

Nevertheless, State Director of Cannabis Holly Bell told lawmakers, “homegrown” hemp will be a “several million dollar industry that will become hundreds of millions in the next two years.”

Bell said Colorado, Vermont, New York, Kentucky and Tennessee are among states that have given farmers the green light to grow hemp after submitting plans to the USDA months ago without any federal interference.

Florida will do as well in early 2020, Bell said, although she expects USDA guidance before year’s end.

“Everybody else is doing it,” she said. The USDA has “not intervened and stopped any state. By December, if everything goes well, our team is ready to issue permits.”

Bell, hired in February by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried as the state’s first cannabis czar after helping Tennessee establish its hemp industry during two decades of developing marijuana industries, said Florida’s program will include a workforce component and an automated permit process.

Without the USDA’s approval of the state’s program, however, Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, a Central Florida farmer, said many farmers who may be interested in adding hemp to their crop mix, – like himself – will be hesitant to do so until the feds sign off.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said hemp could be help the Panhandle recover from 2018’s Hurricane Michael.

In a February hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Senate Bill 1020 – the 2019 bill lawmakers approved to create the state’s hemp program – University of Florida North Florida Research & Education Center Director Glen Aiken recommended hemp and hops as alternative crops for Panhandle farmers recovering from October’s Category 5 storm.

Aiken said there is increasing demand for hemp, which can be used for high-quality fibers and ropes, clothing, even as food.

“I know of an entrepreneur in Kentucky that processes hemp sausage,” he said. “It’s hemp and pork combined. I had some. It’s not the best sausage I’ve ever ate, but it wasn’t too bad either.”

During Tuesday’s pre-session committee primer, agricultural scientists from the University of Florida and FAMU gave presentations of hemp’s prospects in the Sunshine State.

UF Director Dr. Robert Gilbert feared growers could “get ahead of the science” on hemp and said there will be an “emerging crops” summit sometime soon.

Creating a state industrial hemp program has been a priority for Fried since she assumed office in January after being the only Democrat elected to a statewide office in November.

“It’s going to cause an industrial revolution in our state and across the country,” she said in support of SB 1020, noting hemp has as many as 35,000 different uses and its market as a cash crop is only getting brighter as it is considered as a biodegradable replacement for Styrofoam, plastic and paper.

SB 1020, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, was adopted by the House in a 112-1 vote and by the Senate in a 39-0 tally.