Though market competition from foreign countries and the ravaging effects of citrus greening haven’t been kind to the Florida farmer, there is hope in hemp say the founding members of the Florida Hemp Growers Alliance (FHGA).
To discuss this regionally emerging industry, we met with the organization’s co-founders, Bo Snively, Darrin Potter, and Justin Donalson. We were invited to conduct the interview at the Tarpon Springs home of an advisory member to the FHGA, Bob Clayton. Clayton’s home, the first hempcrete house in the state, seemed an appropriate venue for the conversation. More on the hempcrete house, later.
About the FHGA and its Founders
Fourth-generation Polk County farmer, Bo Snively says farming is the only thing he knows. He grew up watching foreign competition and citrus greening drive the younger generation from the farm and saw some families lose their farms altogether. Looking to keep the heritage alive and bring promise to agriculture again, he began to research hemp.
“I think this crop can revitalize the agriculture industry,” said Snively. In 2017, he was the first farmer to testify in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee on behalf of industrial hemp. He advocated for Senate Bill 1020 allowing farmers to pursue industrial hemp, deeming it an agricultural commodity. It’s important to note the difference between hemp and marijuana. Hemp must meet the federal requirement of containing less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound present in marijuana. In other words, hemp will not get you intoxicated or “high.”
Florida Senate Bill 1020, signed in late June of this year, will make it legal for hemp cultivation with a permit through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) who will devise rules for growing the crop. According to Snively, the FDACS rules for hemp are projected to be released in the first quarter of 2020.
Darrin Potter comes from Pahokee, Florida – sugar cane country – where his family grew mangoes, bananas, pumpkin, papaya, grapefruit and avocados on their small farm. He obtained a degree in Biology from UCF, moving afterward to California in 2006. He worked in the medical cannabis space where he saw opportunity in the industry. Potter moved to Colorado in 2008, officially starting his company, Kind Love in 2010 before selling it in 2014. While in Colorado he helped to build another company, The Green Solution.
Potter returned to Florida in 2014 where he founded GrowHealthy in Lake Wales, one of the first medical cannabis operations in the state. He sold GrowHealthy in 2018 to publicly traded, iAnthus Capital.
He had already been doing consulting in the hemp industry when he met Donalson and, later, Snively. Potter said it made sense to him to move out of the cannabis space into hemp – a borderless crop and an industry with significantly fewer regulations tied to it.
From the building infrastructure and cattle side of things comes Justin Donalson. His maternal grandfather was the President of the Iowa Manufacturers Association and his father started one of the first genetics programs for cattle in the state, in Winter Haven during the 90s. Donalson had been researching hemp for roughly five years when he met Darrin Potter in 2014. He described it as “kismet” that they both met Bo Snively at the same time. The three began developing the idea for the Florida Hemp Growers Alliance.
Still in its infancy, starting earlier this year, the FHGA boasts over 500 members with daily growth. According to their website, “The Florida Hemp Growers Alliance is focused on improving the outlook and landscape for farmers in Florida through the burgeoning hemp industry. With educational content, access to seeds and genetics, specialized guidance, and more, the FHGA is dedicated to improving the outlook for today’s farmers and the farmers of the future.”
Snively said, “I think hemp is going to be a lifeline to Florida as a whole for agriculture.” Potter agreed, emphasizing its significance to farmers. “The contention was to help farmers not step into mistakes that I’ve seen a lot of people step into in cannabis. I wanted to make sure people didn’t gamble more than they could lose,” he said.
The hemp plant has a multitude of benefits to the environment, the farmer growing it, the animal eating it, the consumer using it, and as an industrial powerhouse that could reinvigorate agriculture in the state. The founders of the FHGA believe Florida could be a leader in the country for hemp cultivation, production, platelets, and seed. “We want Florida to be the golden standard for hemp,” said Snively.
Florida’s climate makes it ideal for hemp cultivation. According to Snively, for every one outdoor grow cycle up north, Florida can grow three. “When you push seed north, it has a quicker germination rate. That’s why we are trying to have that industry here because of the opposite effect – when you ship seed south, it doesn’t do too well,” said Snively.
Donalson agreed, adding that Florida has the potential to be the cornerstone of manufacturing for North, Central and South America because of our ports.
That scale of industry translates to job creation according to Potter. “Medical cannabis has created well over 300,000 jobs in the U.S. It employs more people than the NFL right now. This is ten times greater than that,” he said. “The opportunity to create jobs in the U.S., Florida, anywhere – I think that’s profound. I think that’s something that we need in this country is the opportunity to put people back to work.”
“Hemp has the opportunity to touch, benefit, and subsidize nearly every industry in Florida,” said Donalson. “From timber, manufacturing, citrus, specialty crops, processing, international shipping, logistics within the state and out of state, banking, commodities, brokering – pretty much everything you can think of is going to be touched by hemp.”
Snively broke down the main three hemp crops – cannabidiol or CBD, fiber which can be used in construction, bioplastics, textiles, and manufacturing, and grain used as cattle feedstock and in food products. From the hemp fiber crop, two components are harvested – hemp hurd and fiber. “Two products from the fiber plant crop, turn into thousands,” Snively said.
Industrial hemp is not meant to replace crops, say the FHGA, but rather to run parallel. “It’s a rotation crop. You grow it to drive the weeds out of the land. Its roots go down deep and suck up nutrients that go into the leaves. We can leave leaves for compost, so you’ve got fertilizer in the next round,” explained Snively.
With many growers and consumers looking toward organic commodities, Potter pointed out the importance of soil health. “A lot of these organic crops are high in heavy metals due to the precursor, the inputs that they use in organic farming which can be anything from fish emulsions to different guano.”
The accumulation of heavy metals in the earth builds up and can find its way into products on store shelves. “Hemp is great for remediation of the soil. It is an accumulator of heavy metals and will strip the soil of heavy metals. You could then plant a cover crop such as legumes, pull your beans, and then till the remainder of the plant into your soil putting nutrients back in,” said Potter. The environmental impact of hemp should not be understated either, he says. Carbon emissions are pulled from the air simply through plant respiration. He described leafy plants as similar to solar panels – they pull in light, produce energy, and convert carbon into oxygen.
Hemp also holds promise for the Florida cattle industry. “Florida is a cow-calf operation. We ship our cattle out west for feedstocks. It’s cheaper to send the cows out there than to send the grain down here,” said Snively. “If we have an active feedstock for our cattle. We could harvest our cows, slaughter our cows, and market our cows here in Florida.” According to Snively, there is already a group of Florida cattlemen raising their cattle and marketing their meat in Florida. Potter explained that hemp can produce six to eight tons of feed per acre – fields of hemp could be planted for grazing. “Hemp would be a great food supplement for beef production,” said Potter. “You could see “Hemp Fed Beef” in the stores soon.”
“When you get down to it – this is another industrial revolution. It’s here, it’s right around the corner,” added Snively.
Old Florida Meets New Florida: Planting the Seed
One focus of the FHGA is tailoring education and services to the next generation of farmers. “Farming is a heritage and we stand for that. We are in it for the long haul. We want to bring that pride back to citrus growers in Polk County. We want to shed some light back into the agriculture industry,” said Snively. “I think this crop has the potential to last another 4 generations and have that heritage brought back.”
Kids who have grown up on farms whether that be anything from citrus to blueberry to cattle have been deterred from staying on the farm because of issues like foreign competition and citrus greening explained Potter. He said, “Hemp has invigorated a younger generation to get back into growing and being a part of that culture.”
That invigoration from hemp has invited not only the younger generation but also folks who have never farmed before to grow the crop. This is why one of the cornerstones of the FHGA is education. They want to be a resource for information about everything from buying the right seed for the right purpose to understanding the logistics of the supply chain from seed to product.
“That’s what the FHGA is about – we’re trying to navigate through the newness of it and trying to line up everything so that everyone succeeds,” said Snively.
Assuring success means providing the tools and Snively says the FHGA aims to “provide a toolbox to the agriculture industry.” The FHGA is presently in the process of securing a large shipment, somewhere in the realm of one thousand acres worth of seed, to “help jumpstart the industry in fiber production.” The shipment is an international variety of fiber and grain seed due to come into the states early this month.
In this first year, they hope to find which varieties do well in Florida. “Everyone’s not going to learn in the first year. What we’ve been recommending to people is to plant only as much as you can lose because it is new. It’s a new environment and a new crop for Florida and Florida has a unique environment. With working with universities and knowing how it grows, we’re going to be relaying that to the industry,” said Snively. He especially thanked FDACS and all the universities participating in navigating the hemp industry. “That’s what is going to drive the industry – education,” he said.
Three varieties of hemp were planted on 34 acres of land in Polk County as a pilot project through Florida A&M University and Green Earth Cannaceuticals. The purpose of the project is to find out what varieties are viable to be harvested in Florida, and that they meet the federal requirement of containing less than 0.3% THC.
The FHGA hopes that hemp will be a cover crop, a commodity, and an industry in Florida, providing opportunity for the state. Motivation, education, and longevity were words exchanged by the three founders of FHGA. “Build for longevity via altruism,” is their motto says, Donalson.” “We’re here for the long haul.”
The First Hempcrete House in Florida
There are eleven tons of hempcrete in Bob Clayton’s Tarpon Springs home. It was the first in Florida and the fourth in the nation at the time he built the house. Clayton first stumbled upon hemp due to serious health problems. When he started adding hemp powder protein to his diet, he began to lose weight, exercise became easier, and he felt better. He lost 35 pounds and 8 inches off his waist.
Clayton was invested in the crop. He began looking into other uses for it and followed leads about carbon-negative, completely recyclable hempcrete online. Why did he build the house? “I felt it was the one thing that we could do that could help hemp. It was the only legal hemp that you could get. It was never illegal to work with stalk,” he said. Clayton imported a shipping container of hemp from England to use in the home’s construction.
Hemp core, made by breaking up the center of the stalk of the hemp plant, is what Clayton’s home is made of. He described using hempcrete as a “different way of building houses.” The home was slip cast with forms, stuffing core between the forms and moving up the walls. The house had to dry for roughly 90 days before the stucco and plaster were able to be applied.
European lime was used combined with the hemp. He explained that lime is desirable as it is a “low carbon tool” which “binds uniquely with the silica in the hemp.”
“These walls are technically getting harder and harder as time passes. It will just gradually complete that mineralization process,” he said. The walls in Clayton’s home are permeable, not trapping water vapor that could cause mold and mildew. The home’s permeability also makes it breathable. Clayton doesn’t use heat during the winter and boasts an enviable $60 electric bill in August.
Clayton built the home in 2012 and received the certificate of occupancy in January of 2014. January of 2015 is when he went to Tallahassee for the first time – the first of five years spent traveling to the state capitol to advocate for industrial hemp. This is how Clayton met Snively, after finishing his house and being asked to testify in front of the Agricultural Committee.
Clayton believes in hemp. He would like to see it become plentiful enough here for developers to build entire hempcrete neighborhoods. “To do hempcrete well, you’ve got to have critical mass. You’ve got to do a quantity of houses you can’t just do one. You’ve got to have a regular supply coming in,” said Clayton. To build hempcrete homes more efficiently, expediently, and cost-effectively relies heavily on the success of the FHGA’s mission to give hemp a presence in Florida.
If you are interested in what the Florida Hemp Growers Alliance intends to accomplish, would like more information, or want to become a member, visit their website listed below.
Florida Hemp Growers Alliance