Feds are regulating the crop after state didn’t provide funds for program
| Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Dave Singletary’s grassy plot of land off Highway 49 in Florence, owned by his family for more than a century, was once home to pigs and cows.
Now the 63-year-old former gubernatorial candidate has a new agricultural commodity in mind: hemp.
“This doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” Singletary explained on a recent tour of the property. “This is putting a seed in the ground and growing it.”
Singletary is among 250 Mississippi farmers approved to grow hemp by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since August. Licensing began shortly after state lawmakers voted in June to legalize the crop.
Hemp belongs to the same species as marijuana but holds only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound that gets pot smokers high. Once widely popular for a range of industrial uses, hemp disappeared during the war on drugs after landing on the federal controlled substances list.
Now the plant is making a comeback thanks to looser laws and the skyrocketing popularity of cannabidiol oil, or CBD, which is extracted from hemp. CBD is often touted for its apparent health benefits.
Mississippi had been among a small handful of states that still did not allow hemp growing heading into 2020. Congress legalized it as part of the 2018 farm bill, and many other states in recent years set up hemp cultivation oversight programs.
A 2019 state task force report on hemp noted its vast potential but cautioned it probably would not be a “large boon” compared to other Mississippi crops.
“It will be important to manage economic expectations on the part of farmers aspiring to grow hemp since market stability is not yet known,” the report said.
Feds are regulating for now
Sen. Sampson Jackson, D-Preston, was a co-author of the bill that allowed hemp cultivation over the summer. He said the crop’s upside is immense — numerous products can be made from hemp and legalizing it lets Mississippi compete directly with other states.
But Sampson also noted market uncertainty surrounding the crop given supply chains often don’t yet exist in the state. He’s heard of farmers in other states piling their hemp in warehouses after they were unable to sell it.
Sen. Sarita Simmons said many farmers in her Delta district had been pushing her and other state leaders to legalize hemp after they heard how lucrative it can be.
“They’re going to continue on with the crop they’re growing now,” the Democrat from Cleveland said of farmers. “But they’re going to make a small investment (in hemp) to see what benefit comes behind it. From there, they’re thinking about growing it into something bigger.”
Senate Bill 2725 legalized hemp growing and outlined how the state would regulate it. But the Legislature didn’t fund the regulatory system overseeing the crop due to COVID-19 budget constraints, and it’s unclear if the state can afford to next year either.
That means — for now — the USDA will oversee hemp licensing and production in the state, said Chris McDonald, director of federal and environmental affairs for the Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
Previous coverage: State task force begins study of hemp in Mississippi
Mississippi is one of three states where farmers must go through the federal government for licensing, according to the USDA. The agency will conduct testing before harvest to ensure a farmers’ hemp doesn’t include THC levels above the legal limit.
McDonald said some Mississippi farmers plan to keep growing most of their usual crops and test out hemp on just a few acres. Others are people who own a few unused acres and want to find out if hemp can provide an extra stream of income, he said.
Several dozen businesses have registered with the state in recent months to grow or sell hemp, records show, with names such as Marijane’s Hemp Farm, Christian Hemp Growers of MS and Hemp Heaven of Mississippi.
Big profit potential for CBD
On a recent afternoon Singletary’s pickup truck bounced over a set of railroad tracks before turning through a pasture and pausing near a natural spring.
“You need a natural spring,” Singletary explained, wearing a cap that read “Don’t panic, it’s organic” surrounding a pot leaf. “The plants like natural water. You ain’t gonna water them with chlorinated water and get a bountiful harvest. This will be the secret to my success.”
Singletary plans to be growing 30 acres worth of 8-foot-high hemp plants within three years. After talking with hemp growers in Louisiana and Arkansas, he said he expects to spend about $15,000 per acre on costs such as drip irrigation, fertilizer and spray that eradicates mold — a necessary ingredient thanks to Mississippi’s high humidity levels.
CBD flower goes for around $300 per pound, Singletary said, and ideally he wants to generate about two pounds off each one of his tens of thousands of plants. After harvesting, the plants must be dried indoors for several weeks.
Previous coverage: Experts voice concerns about hemp cultivation in Mississippi
But Singletary wants to do more than grow hemp.
He plans to sell it on the property as well, after he converts the old family home near the highway into a store. His homegrown CBD hemp flower — “fresh bud,” as he calls it — will be available at the counter, he said, as will other processed hemp and CBD products from outside suppliers.
“I’ve just gotta decorate it up a bit” and give it a “coffee shop in Amsterdam” vibe, Singletary said of the rustic home’s dusty interior. “I’m bringing a brand new industry to southwest Rankin County.”
Singletary won 1% of the vote in last year’s gubernatorial race as an independent running on a message of recreational marijuana legalization. (He’s considering another run in 2023, this time as a Libertarian.)
Recreational pot legalization is a subject he remains obsessed with, frequently bringing up its economic benefits in an interview while also praising Mississippi voters’ recent approval of medical marijuana.
“We’re bringing a new industry to a poverty-stricken state,” he said.
Contact Luke Ramseth at 601-961-7050 or [email protected] Follow @lramseth on Twitter.