This is NOT marijuana: Sumter farmer 1 of first 20 selected to grow industrial hemp for state research

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 7/15/18

Farmers typically want a sure thing and don't take risks, but he's taking one. He's Nat Bradford of the Bradford Family Farm/Bradford Watermelon Co., and he's one of just 20 farmers in the state selected for a pilot program this year to grow …

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This is NOT marijuana: Sumter farmer 1 of first 20 selected to grow industrial hemp for state research

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Farmers typically want a sure thing and don't take risks, but he's taking one. He's Nat Bradford of the Bradford Family Farm/Bradford Watermelon Co., and he's one of just 20 farmers in the state selected for a pilot program this year to grow industrial hemp for research purposes. Hemp has long been designated as a banned crop by the federal government because the plant is from the same species as marijuana, even though it has a significantly lower concentration of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That's the primary chemical responsible for marijuana's psychological effects, creating a euphoric high. With a less than 0.3 percent concentration of THC in hemp compared to marijuana's 30 percent, there is bipartisan support nationally to legalize hemp to increase crop diversity and provide new agriculture for farmers. By federal law, hemp must have less than 0.3 percent THC. According to research, the hemp plant can be used for grain production as a food oil and can also be used to make fabrics and plastics, among numerous other products. Given strong interest in the plant, many states - now including South Carolina - are allowing farmers to apply for permits to grow industrial hemp for research purposes, in accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress. Last year, Gov. Henry McMaster signed legislation making it legal for 20 South Carolina farmers to get a permit to grow industrial hemp this year for research purposes. Of the state's 25,000 farmers, 131 applied for the pilot program. Next year, another 20 will be permitted, according to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. The vast majority of farmers are involved in "commercial agriculture," want to follow a prescription, see every plant produce and not a single plant to die, Bradford said. In the research stage with industrial hemp, it is anything but reliable, commercial agriculture. Bradford is starting from scratch now in his "research lab" of nine plots, or about a half acre, of industrial hemp on his 10.5-acre farm in the northern part of Sumter County. He bought his seed from the West Coast and internationally, and now he's trying to find the strongest performers. It is "playing with genetics," as he is in the preliminary breeding stage to use industrial hemp for grain production as a food oil for culinary use. It's a two-for-one process as well, Bradford said, because the leftover seeds can be used as a protein powder for health shakes and smoothies.

Bradford is actually the only one of the 20 permitted farmers in the state headed in the agricultural grain production route with hemp. The other 19 are experimenting with hemp for Cannabidiol - or CBD - production. CBD has attracted attention for its pharmaceutical effects and is used to treat epilepsy, depression, pain and other ailments.

Bradford described that as "the gold rush" with hemp production, but he said he thinks the market will saturate quickly.

He said he thinks the flatlands of the Pee Dee region along the state's coast could be good for grain and fiber production of hemp.

It's a slow process, though, and "a long haul," he said.

"My goal year one isn't to make a million bucks," Bradford said. "My goal this year is to find the strongest, healthiest plants out of this pool of genetics and start my breeding program with hemp."

Farmers typically desire proven genetics.

"Farmers, we don't like risk," Bradford said. "They want a prescription. This is gambling for farmers on a big scale."

He said if he can clone genetically one plant that produces 1,000 seeds, then next year he could have 10 plants and 10,000 seeds. He hopes next year he can grow the plants up to 8 or 10 feet tall and have up to 40 acres, the maximum acreage allowed according to the legislation.

Bradford said he hopes through his business model he can work with other Sumter farmers to grow the crop.

"I want to see something special happen," he said, "with farmers in the Sumter area and South Carolina with hemp."