CARTER: Farm Act a potential boon for state’s hemp farmers, agriculture industry

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2013 file photo, a woman stands in a hemp field at a farm in Springfield, Colo. On Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, a hearing was held at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., on a bill that would open the market to grow and harvest hemp in Nebraska, two months after President Donald Trump signed a law to legalize hemp. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda)

Being a farmer in North Carolina means being resilient. In recent years, hardworking farm families in our state have been hit by devastating hurricanes, the decline of tobacco prices, labor shortages and tariffs. In the face of these trials, North Carolina farmers have adapted and reinvented themselves in order to survive.

Thanks to the foresight of lawmakers with the recently introduced Farm Act of 2019 (Senate Bill 315), North Carolina farmers could receive a much-needed boost—this time by embracing a new cash crop.

This legislation provides a huge and timely opportunity to harness the exponential growth of hemp, positioning North Carolina on the forefront of this emerging agricultural opportunity. Industrial hemp has the potential to become North Carolina’s next big cash crop, with media reports speculating a statewide economic impact of well above $100 million. Not only would this legislation strengthen our state’s economy, but it would enhance the livelihoods of North Carolina farmers and employees of processing and retail companies throughout the state.

The North Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program was developed in 2015 with the passage of that year’s Farm Act. Since then, hemp production has flourished, becoming an important part of the state’s agricultural landscape.

The industry’s growth potential is evident. Hemp is used in thousands of products, from textiles, to health foods, cosmetics, clothing, construction materials, CBD oil, biofuels and plastic composites. Just two years after the industrial hemp pilot program launched, North Carolina now has 634 farmers growing hemp on approximately 8,000 acres compared to 124 licensed farmers and 2,200 acres just last year. There are also more than 400 licensed processors in North Carolina—roughly 10 times the number of processed in the state last year.

To help harness this growth potential, Senate Bill 315 effectively balances the twin needs to foster North Carolina’s thriving hemp industry with the necessity of appropriate government oversight. As currently written, the bill sets meaningful parameters to ensure the cultivation, processing and marketing of hemp products are undertaken responsibly and consistent with the public interest.

However, during the General Assembly’s recent debate of this bill, some proposals have been floated that would place onerous, burdensome and ill-informed restrictions on hemp farmers, retailers and the public. Unreasonably restricting the products that can be developed in hemp processing facilities, for example, would render North Carolina’s hemp industry nonviable from the start.

A successful and flourishing hemp industry in North Carolina will depend on an appropriate statutory and regulatory framework. These regulations, if adopted, could cut the legs out from under farmers who have already made significant investments in industrial hemp, not to mention an industry poised for tremendous growth. This will allow farmers in neighboring states like Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee to benefit at our expense.

I urge lawmakers to work together to create a defined and reasonable pathway for legal hemp production within Senate Bill 315, establishing North Carolina as a leader in the nation’s hemp industry. With industrial hemp already entrenched in our landscape as a legal commodity, now is the time to embrace this new cash crop.

At a time when North Carolina farmers and rural communities have been hit hard, industrial hemp provides a much-needed lifeline to return our once flush fields and rural towns to their former prosperity.

I hope you will join me, and farmers across North Carolina, in supporting this year’s Farm Bill. The future success of not only farmers, but our entire state, depends on it.

Billy Carter is a third generation tobacco farmer located in Moore County, in recent years he has started to grow hemp.