Florida farmers are hoping the state's new hemp program will help them rebound from a virus-sullen growing season.
Lawmakers signed off of the growing and sale of hemp last year. Since then, farmers have been waiting for the completion of rulemaking and federal approval for months. They received it late last week. Florida is now slated to start accepting applications for industrial hemp growing licenses Monday.
The new opportunity could be a reprieve for the state's second-largest industry, as agriculture continues to reel from a devastating COVID-19 blow.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fired estimates crop losses across the state through mid-April may exceed $522.5 million. The virus, she says, has destroyed demand for fresh produce among bulk buyers as restaurants, processors and schools are shuttered.
Nick Acosta, who grows palms near Homestead at Acosta Farms, said the coronavirus snuffed out what is typically the hottest time of year for the nursery industry. His sales dropped by more than 50%.
"There's a short window for sales -- some have a longer window," he said. "If that window doesn't come, we're going to have to dump the plants and the cost to dump is higher than the cost to ship or produce."
Acosta plans to apply for a hemp growing license to diversify his crops. The plant could offer a profit buffer if trees continue taking hits.
Fried is expecting many growers will do the same. She hopes to see at least 1,500 applications in the first week.
"By working closely with our farmers, processors, retailers and consumers, Florida's state hemp program will become a model for the nation, will set a gold standard for this emerging industry, and will create billions in economic opportunity for Florida," Fried said in a statement. "As our economy deals with the impacts of COVID-19, this approval will give our agriculture industry a new alternative crop for many years to come."
Those interested in applying for a hemp license can find more information here.