HARVESTING HEMP – Palm Seashore Florida Weekly

DOWN A COUNTRY ROAD outside LaBelle in Hendry County, a field of plants grows like — well — weeds, on a small farm enclosed by a high, stout security fence. The sound of a horse whinnying blends with the background whir of large fans running in both a packing house as well as smaller shipping containers dotted around the 17 acres. As the fans blow through already-harvested plants that have been hung for drying, their scent in the air conjures memories of the herbal scent that lingers around college parties. Although these plants are legally grown hemp, the appearance and odor of this cannabis subspecies closely resemble that of their higher-THC cousins.

This farm, Star Manufacturing Hemp, is just one of the licensees legally growing hemp under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) hemp program that turned two years old on April 27. The program promotes industrial hemp, which can be made into 25,000 products ranging from food and dietary supplements to textiles and flooring and even plastics, as a new environmentally-friendly agricultural commodity to benefit Florida’s economy. Florida’s program is one of very few states that regulates all facets of hemp production — from seed to sale — and requires that manufacturers make a certificate of analysis available to the public. The cannabis/hemp section of FDACS’ website shows that, in 2021, there were 802 hemp cultivation permits issued and 30,000 acres approved for planting hemp, but that more reflects the future potential rather than the current state of hemp cultivation in Florida.

Brian Dickerson, CEO of Star Manufacturing Hemp. The company produces the products sold under the brand names Doctor’s Hemp Solutions, as well as the brands Canine Hemp Solutions and Equine Hemp Solutions. CHRIS TILLEY / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Brian Dickerson, CEO of Star Manufacturing Hemp. The company produces the products sold under the brand names Doctor’s Hemp Solutions, as well as the brands Canine Hemp Solutions and Equine Hemp Solutions. CHRIS TILLEY / FLORIDA WEEKLY

“A lot of people have gotten their permits, and they do keep their permits,” said Holly Bell, FDACS’ director of cannabis. “It fluctuates anywhere from about 750 to 800 in any given week, depending on renewals and what people are doing. Those (approved) acreages are staying pretty constant, with a couple of families that have had large tracts approved, but they’re not going to the extent of planting those yet. So, we run about 450 of those acres being actively planted here in Florida. The difference between our planting and the rest of the country is that our farmers are planting not just once a year but three — maybe four — times a year, and a lot of them are growing indoors, too, for higher-quality products here in Florida. So, that’s why we have smaller amounts of acres but still have the volume of production that the rest of the states do.”

BELL

BELL

All this has been possible because the state legislature passed Florida’s hemp program bill in 2019 after the 2018 Federal Farm Bill struck the prohibition on industrial hemp that had been in place nationally since 1937. Most states now have a hemp agricultural program, and Florida is within the top 10 as far as approved acreage. Even with the small amount of that acreage planted, Florida grown hemp created an economic impact of approximately $370 million in 2020 — its first year — supporting over 9,000 jobs and generating over $17 million in federal, state and local tax revenue, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried stated in a press release on the FDACS hemp webpage. It’s expected that Florida’s hemp sector will continue to grow as farmers and agricultural university researchers solve various issues.

FRIED

FRIED

Overcoming cultivation challenges

Since cannabis carries the nickname of weed, it sounds as if the plants should grow easily in a sub-tropical environment where gardeners spend more time hacking back plants than nurturing them, right? Actually, it’s not that simple.

“The first year was challenging,” said Brian Dickerson, CEO of Star Manufacturing Hemp. “First, you’re trying to figure out the right (varieties of) plants and trying to figure out the right separation (between plants). Everything we were reading, everybody saying we need to do this, and we do that, but it’s completely different down here. That first year, we followed what the seed designers thought we needed to do. In all honesty, it may work that way up in Oregon and Colorado, but down here we have to do it differently.”

A flower on a mature hemp plant grown at Star Manufacturing Hemp outside of LaBelle. ANGELA SCHIVINSKI / FLORIDA WEEKLY

A flower on a mature hemp plant grown at Star Manufacturing Hemp outside of LaBelle. ANGELA SCHIVINSKI / FLORIDA WEEKLY

An attorney involved in the health care industry, Mr. Dickerson brought experienced cannabis growers into his company to help him, and even they were surprised by how differently the plants grew in Florida. Co-owner Morgan Coffey, who serves as Star’s chief science officer, had two decades of commercial growing experience before joining the company.

“I’d never grown in South Florida until I moved down here,” Mr. Coffey said. “Even after doing it for as long as I had, it was a whole new learning curve. To do this for 20 years all across the U.S., then to show up here, it’s like learning how to do it all over again.”

One of the surprises about growing hemp in Florida was that it is beneficial to leave actual weeds — such as ragweed — growing in the rows between the hemp beds. Biodegradable black plastic suppresses the various weeds from growing within the beds — important since Star grows with completely organic fertilizers and uses no herbicides or pesticides. (Black plastic beds are also how commercial tomatoes are grown in Southwest Florida.) Traditional farming practices call for eliminating undesired plants because they compete with the planted crop for water and nutrients. But what Star discovered is that the weeds serve as cover to keep the ground — and so the hemp plants’ roots — cooler, reducing stress on the hemp plants.

Brian Dickerson, CEO of Star Manufacturing Hemp showing the stages of hemp, and what the product can become at various stages. CHRIS TILLEY / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Brian Dickerson, CEO of Star Manufacturing Hemp showing the stages of hemp, and what the product can become at various stages. CHRIS TILLEY / FLORIDA WEEKLY

This proved critical because hemp plants react to stress by producing a protective substance — THC. Of course, the cannabinoid THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive substance that resulted in marijuana being classified by the Federal Government under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act as a schedule 1 controlled substance (the classification for drugs considered to have no medical use and high potential for abuse). While industrial hemp seeds are cannabis cultivars that are naturally low in THC, the 2018 Farm Bill set the acceptable trace limit of delta-9 THC at an ultra-low 0.3%, which even hemp plants can run past if they’re stressed while growing. This is called “going hot.” According to The Florida Hemp Council — an industry organization of which Mr. Dickerson is a board member — 14% of Florida’s 2020 hemp crop had to be destroyed because it tested as having above 0.3% THC. A field of plants can slip past that threshold in as little as the two weeks it often takes for a farmer to receive the official lab test results of samples from that field. Farming as a business is already fraught with uncertainty and largely at the mercy of the elements, so to lose an otherwise healthy crop to so thin a test margin could be financially devastating to a farmer.

 

The 0.3% THC threshold stems from a single 1976 study by Canadian scientist Ernest Small, Ph.D., who arbitrarily used it as a means to describe the hemp subspecies. He didn’t intend for it to be used for legal definitions, yet many nations picked up on his research and implemented the 0.3% threshold. In a subsequent 2002 academic article, Mr. Small noted that the intoxicating effects of THC don’t begin until the plant reaches 1% and that illicit marijuana typically does not contain less than 5% THC.

Top: This dog arrived at Big Cypress German Shepherd Rescue with a case of mange, which was then treated with Doctor’s Hemp Solutions canine HempFlavin derm spray. Above: The dog re-grew a full coat 30 days after she was treated for mange with Doctor’s Hemp Solutions canine HempFlavin derm spray. PHOTOS COURTESY OF BIG CYPRESS GERMAN SHEPHERD RESCUE

Top: This dog arrived at Big Cypress German Shepherd Rescue with a case of mange, which was then treated with Doctor’s Hemp Solutions canine HempFlavin derm spray. Above: The dog re-grew a full coat 30 days after she was treated for mange with Doctor’s Hemp Solutions canine HempFlavin derm spray. PHOTOS COURTESY OF BIG CYPRESS GERMAN SHEPHERD RESCUE

“Two years ago, we had this all cleaned out between each bed, and that was the one time that we got close to going hot,” Mr. Dickerson said, pointing at the ragweed. “The reason we think was the sun hitting and making the soil hotter. So ever since, we just mow between the beds, so, it doesn’t look pretty.”

As with all plants, different varieties (or cultivars) are better acclimated to different environments. For example, gardeners grow quicker-ripening tomato varieties in the northern states because of the shorter growing season, whereas South Florida gardeners typically grow Everglades tomatoes during summer as that variety is acclimated to the area’s intense heat.

BROWN

BROWN

One key factor with growing hemp in Florida is day length, since the state is closer to the equator than the northern states that are better known for cannabis cultivation. On the longest day of summer, South Florida receives under 14 hours of daylight, compared to the over-16 hours the state of Washington receives that same day. Cannabis comes in photoperiod and autoflower varieties. Photoperiod hemp cultivars have acclimated to respond to long northern days, so they behave differently when planted in Florida, only growing to around 10 feet high. The light-neutral autoflower varieties flower regardless of day length, based upon a plant age of 70 to 90 days, and Mr. Dickerson said Star’s autoflower plants only grow 4 or 5 feet tall. However, he can grow the autoflowers year-round, whereas he can grow the photoperiod crop only twice per year. Given he plants some portion of his property every month because he needs to harvest raw materials continually to supply the manufacturing side of his business, the mix and rotation of cultivars are critical.

CAPRIO

CAPRIO

“Our first year, the plant designers wanted us to plant them 24 inches apart on the beds because they thought we were going to get these big behemoths down here like they get up North,” Mr. Dickerson said. “We don’t get those — we get a shorter, stouter, thicker plant, so now we plant them staggered 6 inches apart. To use a tomato analogy, we get fewer tomatoes on the vine, but they’re fatter, juicier, and redder.”

The autoflower cultivars seeded directly into the field while the photoperiod plants get started indoors under intense lights for 60 days for later transplant into the field. Mr. Dickerson said the reason he grows both types, despite the special treatment photoperiod plants require, is that the plants produce different quantities of the various cannabinoid and flavonoids — natural substances with medicinal qualities — he needs to extract to produce the various dietary supplements and topical skin treatments that the company manufactures and packages right on the farm.

 

Currently, much of the commercial hemp production in Florida centers on varietals suited for oil extraction, which then end up in products ranging from tinctures and capsules to topical creams and lotions. Not as far along is the fiber varietal side of the industry, in part because researchers are still attempting to identify the fiber cultivars best suited to Florida’s day length, heat, and humid growing conditions.

“The fiber hemp looks more like bamboo, about 8 to 15 feet tall, and it’s grown on large tracts of land and harvested with combine-like equipment for use in concrete, drywall, clothing and hemp wood,” Director Bell said. “On those large tracts of land (approved for planting), they’re waiting on some really strong genetics on the fiber side of it.”

Then, turning hemp fiber into useable products requires considerably more processing than extracting oils for dietary supplements requires. It takes time to build that manufacturing infrastructure. As one example, Director Bell said a hemp towel business has opened in Jacksonville. While it currently uses foreign-grown hemp fiber, she said plans are in process for the company to switch to Florida-grown hemp fiber that will then be woven here as well. Hemp-fiber towels require less water and detergent to launder, so the plan is to market the towels to Florida’s hotels as an economical, environmentally friendly alternative that also happens to be locally grown and manufactured.

“This was Commissioner Fried’s vision, and in years three, four, and five, you’re really going to see this start to boom for the state of Florida,” Director Bell said. “This upcoming year, you’re going to see some major investment dollars in Florida in hemp on the infrastructure side for the fiber. Three or four projects right now are really close to being finalized, and they’ll create jobs.”

Overcoming legal issues

Even when it is grown to produce dietary supplements and topicals with medicinal qualities, industrial hemp differs from medical marijuana. It particularly differs in legal status. Hemp falls under the authority of the USDA. While a patchwork of state laws has sanctioned medical marijuana, it remains illegal under Federal law, placing it under the jurisdiction of the DEA. Then, in 2018, the FDA approved CBD (cannabidiol), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant, at a 100-milligram concentration as an anti-seizure drug under the brand name Epidiolex. This placed CBD products of lower milligram concentration, such as CBD smoothie shakes, on unsure legal ground.

“Here’s how ridiculous and gray this is,” Mr. Dickerson said. “The state law in Florida for hemp — not CBD, but hemp — defines hemp and derivatives of hemp as human food. The federal government doesn’t define it as a food, doesn’t define it as a drug, nothing. It’s the FDA’s determination that Epidiolex — CBD — is a drug. Then take a step back further to animal feed, undetermined.”

This legal murkiness for a plant and its derivative products that are legal nationwide when under 0.3% THC but Federally illegal once they slip past that low threshold, has stifled the growth of the hemp industry. Congress has considered several bills that would amend the Farm Bill to raise the plant threshold to 1%, with some stipulating that THC then be removed during processing to bring products sold to consumers down below a 0.3% threshold.

The murkiness makes conducting business difficult. Some banks, credit card processors and e-commerce website hosts don’t want to become involved until the Federal laws are completely clear. Mr. Dickerson said that he had to debate with his website host because the host won’t handle CBD.

He pointed out that his product didn’t contain CBD isolate but instead contained full-spectrum hemp extract and HempFlavin, a proprietary flavonoid extract developed by his business partner Mr. Coffey and Star’s third co-owner, chief research and development officer Jesse Riggins.

“As a lawyer I don’t want to touch CBD, so we do products other than CBD,” Mr. Dickerson said. “It comes down to ignorance. With certain banks — especially where the product is new — number one you’ve got to overcome their perception that it is marijuana. We have to educate them about how it’s legal, and the perception of banks is, they’re scared until the Federal Government tells them it’s safe. We’ve gone through three or four processors until we found one that was actually mindful of our industry.”

Star Manufacturing Hemp sells its products online as Doctor’s Hemp Solutions, which offers products to benefit people, dogs and horses. Star also packages its products “white-labeled” for various wholesale clients to sell under their own brand name. Nouveau Health & Wellness of West Palm Beach sells Star’s hemp products under its own brand on their own website. However, when C&C Feed Store in Alva placed the Doctor’s Hemp Solutions products on its website, its e-commerce host said the store had to remove the products. For the moment, the products are only available for in-store purchase.

“Can you imagine a business in today’s world that can’t take credit cards?” Director Bell said. “That’s the challenge, so they find little workarounds. They have what’s called closed-loop systems that can debit your checking account, but it really makes it complicated.”

A different solution at the Federal level has been proposed by the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would decriminalize cannabis and THC as well as de-schedule it from the Controlled Substances Act. Decriminalization would render obsolete the patchwork of state and Federal laws, regulations, and agencies that currently regulate the different aspects of cannabis.

The House of Representatives voted to approve the bill in early April of this year.

Hemp’s many uses

After purchasing the farm with the packing house onsite; constructing and equipping a laboratory building that met both FDA and the good manufacturing practices regulations of the dietary supplement industry; getting permits and acreage approved for planting; learning how to grow hemp organically in Florida’s environment; then doing research and development experiments with the various compounds extracted from the hemp; and white labeling products for wholesale clients, Star Manufacturing Hemp finally brought its own line of products to market in August 2021. And much of those products were for horses.

“In Florida, the equine industry is a $4.5 billion industry — third-largest in the United States with third-most horses in the country,” Mr. Dickerson said. “So, I was looking at, while we keep white labeling for our clients, $4.5 billion is perfect. We can work this market without even leaving the state of Florida.”

Researching the equine market, he discovered that 75% of horse owners also have dogs, so expanding into canine products was a natural path. And then people with horses tend to hurt themselves, so the human product line came next. Mr. Dickerson said his team used university veterinary research to determine what extracts from the hemp plant would be most beneficial to the animals, letting science guide the product development. Developing products first for horses and dogs also gave the advantage of testing products with individuals who were not susceptible to a placebo effect. Mr. Dickerson used the products first with his own horses and dogs, and then the company donated products to horse and dog rescue nonprofits (and continues to do so).

Michelle Delaney, founder of Big Cypress German Shepherd Rescue of Naples, said she has found Doctor’s Hemp Solutions canine HempFlavin derm spray superior to veterinarian medications for mange treatment. She also uses the company’s products to treat other maladies that the rescue dogs arrive with.

“We had a dog come in with a litter of five puppies, and they all had mange — it was just awful,” Ms. Delaney said. “We used the derm spray on all of them for 30 days, and it cleared up. If you see her coat now, she looks like Black Beauty. We’ve used their calming treats for thunderstorm anxiety. It’s an amazing company, to help out such a young nonprofit as us where every penny we can save helps. Brian stepped up to the plate immediately and started taking care of our dogs.”

The company’s equine line includes feed supplements, liniments, hoof treatments and a HempFlavin charcoal mud for healing open wounds that Mr. Dickerson said is now being tried in human clinical studies to see if it would benefit diabetes patients with wound healing. C&C Feed Store, located near Babcock Ranch, carries all three product lines, and store manager Victoria Brown said customers were coming back with rave reviews and purchasing more products. So, she decided to try the products with her own horses.

“I don’t like feeding supplements,” Ms. Brown said. “But I tried them, and I did see a huge difference on my two horses. They’re old, so they’re arthritic and have a hard time walking without their joints locking. They can walk out easier, so they’re at a faster pace. I’m not going to tell you that their joints have not stopped locking completely, but one of them runs out like a younger horse — he feels so good — and it doesn’t change with the weather.”

Dr. Lisa Caprio, the medical director of Vidaful Medicine in Naples, knew Mr. Dickerson as a fellow horse owner and began using the horse products. That went well, so she tried the canine products for her dog.

“I thought, ‘This guy’s got something,’ so I started taking the products myself,” Dr. Caprio said. “My husband was one of the subjects in the clinical study for HempFlavin. I haven’t white-labeled the products for Vidaful yet, so I give protocols and options for holistic therapies and refer patients who could benefit to their website (to purchase products). I get cancer patients who have already tried the traditional medicine route, so they’re trying other options. I spent 25 years in traditional medicine — I’ve seen the flaw and benefits — so I marry the two to give patients a starting point.”

The study Dr. Caprio’s husband participated in was done by Dr. Donato Borrillo to test HempFlavin’s effectiveness in treating acute and chronic pain. Of the 46 participants, 91% experienced decreased pain after using the product daily for one month.

As to the future, Mr. Dickerson and his team always have an eye toward efficiency. Star Manufacturing Hemp creates additional products from parts of the plant that other hemp manufacturers discard. Plans are being finalized for producing horse bedding made of dried leftovers that absorbs three times more moisture than the pine shavings most horse owners currently use. He also intends to move into manufacturing products from hemp fiber once the correct cultivars for Florida are identified.

Pointing at the experimental batch of horse bedding, Mr. Dickerson said, “With pine, you’re making bedding out of trees that are 14 to 18 years old. A hemp field is 180 days. So, when you look at the savings — the greenness — you’re not cutting down pine trees.” ¦