ORLANDO, Fla., June 27 (UPI) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill to create a state hemp program, and there's new urgency to find varieties of the crop that can grow well in the state's subtropical environment.
"I have an email list of people interested in our research that has a thousand names on it -- farmers and others," said Zachary Brym, project coordinator for University of Florida's hemp research program. "I get calls and emails every day from farmers who are curious about growing it as a crop."
Hemp is related to marijuana plants, but doesn't have enough of the psychoactive drug component, THC, to make a person high. Among its uses are hemp fiber, which can be woven into fabric or other materials. It also is a source of cannabidiol -- used by people to treat anxiety and other conditions. Hemp seeds are used as feed for livestock.
Brym, based in Homestead, Fla., and researchers at two other University of Florida locations, have planted 46 varieties of hemp to see which can handle Florida's heat, moisture, soil and pests like nematodes. They also have to deal with the available sunlight at Florida's latitude -- shorter days in the winter than in the North.
Another university goal is to match a variety with the needs of the industry in the United States.
"The list of we have planted does not represent what we think will do well here. It's simply what we've had access to," Brym said. "Varieties we obtained from southern China are grown in a warm environment, so that may be most similar."
The state's agriculture department says hemp has 25,000 uses, including environmentally conscious products and biocomposite industrial materials like hempcrete; food additives; cosmetics; medicinal products; and CBD.
Medical marijuana is estimated to become a multibillion-dollar industry in Florida. As such, the state can use a new crop to counter agricultural output that has declined because of problems in the citrus and tomato industries.
"Florida has the potential to become the gold standard on hemp -- our deep agricultural heritage, climate and resources, and farming infrastructure will make Florida a national leader in this emerging new economy," Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement after DeSantis signed the bill on Tuesday.
Hemp as a commercial crop is taking off around the country after the 2018 Farm Bill removed it from the list of federally controlled Schedule 1 substances.
Hemp sales in Kentucky more than tripled between 2017 and 2018, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Hemp processors there reported $57.75 million in gross product sales last year, according to the department, up from $16.7 million.