shows a man with glasses and a farmer's cap
Martin County farmer Benny Bunting grows hemp and extracts CBD oil for his daughter with multiple sclerosis. Photo credit: screen shot from Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA youtube video.

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By Taylor Knopf

Martin County farmer Benny Bunting originally ventured into the hemp industry after he witnessed how much CBD oil helped his adult daughter with multiple sclerosis.

Hemp flowers, a source of CBD. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

He joined the North Carolina’s hemp pilot project three years ago and began extracting CBD oil for her. CBD has greatly improved her quality of life, Bunting said.

Hemp has also helped his son, a young farmer who wanted to continue in the increasingly difficult agriculture business. Bunting and his son work together and have made quite a profit from their hemp sales.

Though it’s been lucrative for them, Bunting says that’s not everyone’s experience.

“There’s almost as many big ‘nos’ and there are big ‘yeses,’ he said.

But this year, three years into North Carolina’s growing experiment with hemp production, and just as some farmers began to see glimmers of hope in the up-and-coming crop, law enforcement has stepped in and threatened to take it away.

Because hemp flower buds look and smell identical to marijuana, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation wants to ban smokable hemp flower, the most profitable form of the crop. By legalizing hemp flower, the SBI claims that the state is legalizing marijuana from an enforcement standpoint.

The SBI recently submitted a memo to state lawmakers detailing their concerns and asking for amendments to the NC Farm Act of 2019, which sets some parameters for the now-legal crop and for those growing and selling it.

Hemp growers flooded the state legislature last week to oppose the SBI’s requested changes. State lawmakers amended the Farm Act and pushed the hemp flower ban to December 2020, stating that law enforcement, the state hemp commission and others should come together between now and then and work out the enforcement issue.

Marc Simon and his son, TKTK came to the legislature last week to advocate for continued hemp cultivation. They have a farm and hemp store in Winston-Salem. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Lawmakers will take up the Farm Act again on Wednesday.

Some growers are still unhappy with the change, saying law enforcement had three years to come forward with their concerns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is just beginning the task of regulating the fast-growing, emerging CBD industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars which is driving the hemp farming industry.

Some background

Hemp is no longer a schedule I controlled substance. It became a legal agricultural commodity across the United States after President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill last year. Farmers can grow and sell all forms of hemp the same way they grow corn and soybeans.

Farmers in North Carolina were elated. Many view hemp as an opportunity to diversify their crops, ensuring a future for their farms.

The last few years have been hard on North Carolina’s farmers. Since 2017, cattle prices have dropped 13 percent, pork is down 7 percent, and vegetable prices are down 10 percent.

Tobacco — which was the cash crop in N.C. for decades — is moving overseas. Farmers have reported significant cuts to their contracts. They say the big companies are getting cheaper tobacco from countries like China and Brazil.

Bryan Atkins, a 27-year-old farmer from Moore County, told state lawmakers last week that tobacco had always been his family farm’s “bread and butter.”

“Last year we ventured out into hemp and some other crops trying to diversify our farm, but the hemp has been a blessing for us,” Atkins said. “We want a future in agriculture. With commodity prices and all, we cannot make a sustainable living off of soybeans and corn, especially since our tobacco is gone. The hemp has given us the opportunity to explore other options.”

Some farmers said they can make between between $20,000 to $30,000 an acre with a good hemp crop.

On top of industry woes, Hurricanes Matthew and Florence have devastated the eastern part of the state causing billions in damages.

Stress is high and mental health needs are rising among those in agriculture as they struggle to maintain their livelihoods.

Linda Young, a farmer from Harnett County, teared up while advocating for the hemp industry as she started talking about Hurricane Florence. She thanked lawmakers for the relief money said said, “without that assistance, some of us wouldn’t be standing here.”

As this newly legal crop emerges, it holds potential, but it comes with uncertainty as well.

‘Wild west’ of CBD

Hemp contracts are all different. Some buyers pay when they pick up the crop. Others wait until they sell it. And Bunting, the Martin County farmer, has found that hemp plants can be finicky.

The plant needs to mature to certain level of cannabidiol (CBD) content, the higher the better for companies buying it.

When Hurricane Florence hit last year, Bunting said that some farmers harvested too early, yielding a crop with about 7 percent CBD content. That’s not enough. Bunting said 12 to 15 percent is considered good, and his best crop last year came in at 20 percent.

He frequently sends away crop samples to a lab to monitor the levels of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the hallucinogenic compound that leaves users with a high. State regulators check the crop to ensure the THC levels are within legal limits. If it’s out of compliance, the crop must be destroyed.

Bunting said he cannot take a chance of that, so he monitors his plants closely. There’s no crop insurance for the hemp and lenders aren’t getting into the new industry quite yet.

Meanwhile, the hemp industry is being driven by consumer demand for CBD, a product with many unknowns.

CBD is a compound in cannabis plants that people use for various medicinal purposes. Unlike its cousin marijuana, legal hemp plants must contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC.

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CBD can be extracted from the plant into an oil, which some people take orally. The oil has been infused into a multitude of products from soaps, lotions and salves, to foods, CBD-infused seltzer water, candies, even supplements for dogs. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner has said that it’s illegal to put CBD in food or supplement products.

Anecdotally, consumers say CBD helps with an array of problems such as insomnia, mental illness, inflammation and pain. The only FDA approved use of CBD is a drug called Epidiolex, used to treat epilepsy.

Hemp research is limited at the moment. On Friday, the FDA held its first-ever hearing on CBD, where agriculture representatives explained the benefits of the newly legalized crop for farmers. During public comment, people shared stories of CBD’s therapeutic results. And academics shared preliminary findings from small studies.

Meanwhile, forensic specialists warned against bad actors taking advantage of the popular product. They told FDA officials that some products advertised as CBD have significantly less or no CBD in them at all. Others have dangerous additives that have left some consumers hospitalized.

And for the purists, there’s hemp flower. Consumers grind up the flower and smoke it.

Several commenters called the hemp industry the “wild west” due to the lack of knowledge and regulation around it. Others described CBD as “the genie out of the bottle” that cannot be put back in.

The overwhelming message from the dozens who testified before the FDA was: “Please regulate CBD.”

In turn, FDA officials asked several public commenters if they had studies on CBD for various population groups or dosage recommendations. The FDA has asked the public to submit research or comments by July 2.

Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf covers rural and mental health news. She previously wrote for The News & Observer as a politics and general assignment reporter. Before that, she worked at a small daily newspaper in southern...