Hemp is growing fast in South Carolina, but can the industry keep up? 

Seeing Green

"To me, it's the perfect plant."

Jason Eargle is an entrepreneur who has been advocating for hemp for years now. He's also one of the owners of the largest hemp farm in the state.

Eargle's journey in the industry started three and a half years ago when he and his business partner Robert Moore began talking about how hemp could change farming communities in South Carolina. They created one of South Carolina's first industrial hemp companies, Brackish Solutions, and have since helped raise awareness around the plant: first about the legalization of hemp, and now about the growth and many potential uses of hemp in the state.

Following the 2014 Farm Bill, which legitimized industrial hemp research in the United States, Brackish Solutions helped push H.R.3530, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, through Congress, allowing South Carolina farmers to cultivate hemp. It wasn't without its challenges, though. After falling short in 2015, Eargle realized that lawmakers and farmers needed to be educated about the plant he was advocating for.

click to enlarge Jason Eargle - KEELY LAUGHLIN
  • Keely Laughlin
  • Jason Eargle

When Eargle and other hemp advocates initially pitched the crop to lawmakers and farmers, they were met with some pushback — and confusion. Was this just another weed plant?

"We did a lot of testifying and meeting with regulatory bodies and stakeholders," says Eargle of the education process. Finally, in 2017, the state passed an industrial hemp pilot program, allowing 20 farmers in the state to grow 20 acres of hemp each, with an emphasis on research.

"We changed the conversation around hemp," says Eargle, acknowledging its misconceptions. Hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant — a cousin of marijuana. Unlike marijuana, hemp's history is rooted in industries like textiles and building materials.

"We started talking to lawmakers about the economic development pieces of the puzzle, and they immediately passed it," says Eargle. "That speaks volumes."

Hemp for victory

"I feel like South Carolina is poised to compete and surpass, on a national level, a lot of other states," says Eargle, discussing the potential for hemp cultivation in the state. Before Hurricane Florence devastated a portion of their 100-acre Wadmalaw Island farm in 2018, Eargle says the output of the farm was "outstanding."

"The soil and plant were interacting well, and the climate and general season is conducive to growing," he says. South Carolina's growing season is longer than other big hemp-growing areas in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. The state's agricultural history helps, too; farmers have accumulated experience and knowledge from generations of growing tobacco, which is similar to hemp farming.

Interest in the hemp industry shows no signs of slowing down. Every five years, Congress passes a new Farm Bill, updated legislation for national agriculture, and in December 2018, they passed a bill that removed hemp from the list of Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

The S.C. Department of Agriculture (SCDA) had planned to only double its hemp pilot program for 2019 by handing out 40 more licenses to grow hemp, but after the 2018 Farm Bill passed, South Carolina followed suit. On March 28 2019, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a bill, H.3449, expanding the state's hemp farming program.

Currently, 114 farmers in South Carolina are licensed to cultivate, handle, and process hemp with the approval of the SCDA.

"One thing we do well in South Carolina, is we farm." Cynthia Feldman is the owner and head pharmacist at Sweetgrass Pharmacy, located in Mt. Pleasant. She's also a hemp farmer.

Feldman knows firsthand the obstacles to get hemp from seed to sale.

"It doesn't just happen," says Feldman, who is currently harvesting her second crop at her farm. Hemp plants can grow to be up to 16 feet tall and harvesting the plant is labor intensive. Depending on what you're using the plant for, you may be harvesting for stems, leaves, or buds. Once those parts of the plant are trimmed or removed, the plant has to be dried and cured. And unless you're smoking it, the hemp will still need to be processed and manufactured before becoming a finished product.

Oh, and none of that really matters if you don't have a buyer for your product.

"The state is dying for agriculture," says Feldman. But growing the plant is just one part of the puzzle.

The CBD craze

click to enlarge MISSY MCCONNELL
  • Missy McConnell

Like Eargle, Feldman is currently growing her hemp for CBD (cannabidiol), the second-most prevalent of the active ingredients in cannabis. It is derived directly from the hemp plant and is said to help people who struggle with insomnia, anxiety, and chronic pain. CBD can be found in hemp flower and smoked; it can be taken orally as an oil tincture, capsule, or gummy; it can be added to food products like honey and cotton candy; and it can be applied topically as a salve.

You don't have to look far — either in the news or in your local pharmacy — to find products containing CBD. The stuff is having a moment, and South Carolina farmers are capitalizing on it.

"The CBD is not our end goal," says Eargle of Brackish Solutions' plans for their hemp crops, but CBD is currently what people are buying. "We want to have some capital to put into our [other] efforts, and we want to make money on that CBD."

Brackish Solutions is a full operation unto itself: After harvesting their plants, they can process them in their own facilities, a rarity among S.C. producers.

With a crop of new farmers and shelf space to sell it, a common gripe among farmers and sellers of CBD is that there simply are not enough processors to take the raw goods to the next step. "There's a bottleneck," says Feldman, who adds that it's still "the wild West" as a relative newcomer. Plus, there haven't been enough studies and tests to figure out the best way to process the raw hemp.

Most facilities use butane, ethanol, or CO2 as solvents to extract oil from the hemp plant, and each method has its drawbacks.

In addition to being properly processed, CBD-producing plants need to be lab-tested, too. Currently the state requires farmers to send their hemp plants to a certified lab to determine THC levels (which must be below 0.3 percent) within 30 days prior to harvesting.

After the plant is processed, though, no more tests are required by law. The consumer products currently exist in a no-man's land — no longer regulated by the Department of Agriculture and not yet regulated by the FDA.

Eargle and Feldman recommend that if you're buying CBD, ask about lab tests of the product post processing and manufacturing. "Just because someone sends a certificate of analysis from the field, you don't know what happens after that," says Feldman.

The miseducation of CBD users

click to enlarge Charleston Hemp Collective's hemp cigarettes - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Charleston Hemp Collective's hemp cigarettes

Earlier this month, CBD made headlines. And not in a good way.

USA Today warned, "Spiked vapes and emergency room visits reveal dark side of CBD craze." Fox Business asked, "What's actually in your CBD product?"

While CBD itself likely won't put you in a hospital bed (unless it interacts poorly with your medications), a lack of knowledge about the plant-derived product and the people who sell it can be dangerous.

Ask any hemp farmer, CBD manufacturer, pharmacist, or small business owner — the lack of education around both hemp and its derivatives is the industry's biggest obstacle at this point.

And those headlines, well, they help contribute to a bad rap.

First thing's first: Be wary of where you purchase CBD.

"CBD is a great market," says Feldman, who in addition to growing her own hemp, carries several CBD products in her pharmacy. "It's new and it's come a long way — but there's still a long way to go. If you're not buying from a professional, you're not doing the right thing for yourself."

No matter what you buy: ask questions, research the company selling the CBD, and pay attention to the price point. "Prices are there for a reason," says Feldman. "If it's $20, be careful what you're getting. If it's $100, still be careful, but you can understand why they priced it that way, because it's been tested and gone through the right processes. If you're going to a gas station [and buying CBD], don't come back and tell me it didn't work."

Local or bust

"Our goal is to educate and promote local and try to be part of the local community. We're a collective of local, which has made everyone who walks through our doors happy."

click to enlarge Charleston Hemp collective’s Matt and Libiss Skinner sell a range of hemp and cbd products — even hemp cigarettes - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Charleston Hemp collective’s Matt and Libiss Skinner sell a range of hemp and cbd products — even hemp cigarettes

Libiss Skinner and her husband Matt are the owners of Charleston Hemp Collective, a King Street store that sells CBD in a variety of forms, from gummies to tinctures to salves.

The two had been interested in cannabis for years, and when Libiss was diagnosed with a painful condition, she realized that she could either take a bunch of pills every day; spend a lot of money on one effective pill; or start her own business where she can grow, sell, and take CBD, which helps with her pain. She chose the latter.

Charleston Hemp Collective sources their hemp from a farm in North Carolina. "We really pride ourselves on knowing every aspect of brand and product," says Skinner. "We plant, process, distribute. We know what's in it. We have triple lab tested under every guideline. All the facilities are on our property, so we don't have to worry about things coming from all over.

"We don't want to white label. We want to know what's in the product."

White labeling can be legitimate, but it may be one of the more frowned-upon practices in the industry, even though it happens fairly often. Basically, the term refers to sticking your name and brand on a product produced by someone else and passing it off as your own.

Because of how young the CBD industry is in this state, the infrastructure simply doesn't exist to produce a wide variety of products grown, processed, and distributed entirely in South Carolina.

Consequently, you'll find a number of local businesses supporting each other — and sourcing material from outside the state. Most local sellers we talked to have been to the farms where they buy their hemp, whether they're in North Carolina, Oregon, or Colorado. They've also independently lab tested their products once they've received them in their stores.

click to enlarge Louis Miles, owner of Clarity Nutraceuticals - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Louis Miles, owner of Clarity Nutraceuticals

Louis Miles, owner of Clarity Nutraceuticals, a CBD manufacturing company located in West Ashley, is a proponent of knowing who you're buying your CBD from; buying from a local company is always going to be preferable.

"You have to know your suppliers," he says. Miles references Charleston-based companies he respects, CannaBonez and Apis Mercantile: "You get to know them. They'll talk to you and tell you what they do. You have trust and respect — and they have a reputation."

In this industry, "local" can mean a lot of things, but most reputable sellers are entirely transparent about how local their products are. For example, while the Hemp Collective doesn't currently have a farm in South Carolina, they too have collaborated with other Charleston-based CBD companies, including Apis Mercantile.

Growing pains

click to enlarge Apis Merchantile’s John Berdux says honey - feels approachable — something your grandma could use - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Apis Merchantile’s John Berdux says honey feels approachable — something your grandma could use

In February of this year, after those 114 farmers geared up to grow South Carolina hemp, the SCDA issued a statement "regarding CBD and hemp in food and feed products in the marketplace."

The state agency sets their policies based on federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, which, under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) says that it is unlawful to "introduce food containing added CBD into interstate commerce, or to market CBD products as, or in, dietary supplements."

What does that mean? Well, for Charleston-based company Apis Mercantile, it meant that they had to rethink how they market their most-popular product, CBD honey, starting with removing the word "CBD" from the labels themselves.

So now, you'll find "hemp oil honey" labels on Apis products, a step that may be technically compliant with the SCDA, but may muddy the waters for consumers.

click to enlarge John Berdux - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • John Berdux

"It's sort of a confusing policy," say John Berdux and Liam Becker, the owners of Apis. "Referring, as a blanket statement, to it as hemp extract is not giving the consumer a lot of information."

And therein lies one of the frustrations Berdux and Becker have with the state's regulation of the CBD industry. Eventually, Berdux and Becker would like to hire more in S.C. — they currently source their CBD from a fellow CofC graduate in Colorado — but the industry here isn't ready yet.

"We need regulations," says Louis Miles, who has ideas about how the state could better implement some policies so that CBD doesn't remain in a grey area. "We have hardcore licensing for cultivation and processing, but no licensing for manufacturing. There is no DHEC inspection, the SCDA and DHEC need to hold people to food safety. There need to be regulations for retailers, so you can trace the product back to find the seller."

Miles is a proponent of recording a full chain of custody through production, so that CBD can be regulated from the farm to the shelf. "There's definitely a lot to be fixed," he says.

But does it work?

click to enlarge CBD Social sources all of their CBD from Oregon - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • CBD Social sources all of their CBD from Oregon

The strongest scientific evidence related to the study of CBD's effect on humans relates to its effectiveness in treating childhood epilepsy. In 2018, the FDA approved the first ever cannabis-derived medicine for seizures, Epidiolex, which contains CBD. The general consensus from groups like the World Health Organization is that more research needs to be done about other benefits of CBD before any can be touted with certainty.

Anecdotally, CBD is said to help people with anxiety, sleeplessness, chronic pain, and more.

John Fosco, the owner of CBD Social on King Street, says taking CBD helped reduce his dependence on oxycontin, a highly addictive narcotic. When he and his business partner realized how much the CBD business was taking off, they decided to invest. They source their CBD from Oregon and process and manufacture it in Ohio at the same facility as another one of their business ventures, which sells supplements.

click to enlarge John Fosco, owner of CBD Social - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • John Fosco, owner of CBD Social

"We're proud to have a West Coast product," says Fosco, who believes the hemp he sources is "cleaner" than what you'll find on the East Coast.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, "A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, CBD applied on the skin could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis. Another study demonstrated the mechanism by which CBD inhibits inflammatory and neuropathic pain, two of the most difficult types of chronic pain to treat. More study in humans is needed in this area to substantiate the claims of CBD proponents about pain control."

Anecdotal benefits aside, Feldman says that if you've taken CBD and felt, well, nothing, there's a reason for that.

She says that she finds a lot of patients underdosing CBD. Because so many CBD products are expensive (a tincture bottle can cost more than $150), people limit the amount they use. One drop under the tongue won't cut it, Feldman says — it's not a miracle drug.

"It's important for patients to know how they're taking it and how much," she says, adding that a lot of people aren't really paying attention to what amounts of CBD they're putting in their bodies. "I encourage patients to push the envelope on dosing. When they stop seeing benefits, then back down."

Fiber is the future

"The government has bought into the potential of this plant as a revenue source," says Eargle. "What we don't know is how to do this on a mass scale outdoors. Not a lot of research has been done." Remember, until 2018, hemp was listed as a Schedule I drug. If you were trying to grow it on a large scale, you would likely land in trouble.

Eargle acknowledges that it is going to take years to figure out best practices for hemp farms.

Once farms do that, though, Eargle is excited about the future of hemp as an industrial material, specifically, in the textile market. Just as South Carolina has generational knowledge of farming, the state also has a history as a textile hub. "There's a lot of know-how that used to be here, and a couple [textile] plants still left," says Eargle.

Local architect and adjunct professor at the American College of the Building Arts, April Magill is also interested in the future of hemp in the industrial realm.

For the past decade, Magill has been working with natural building materials, including hempcrete, a bio-composite made of the inner core of the hemp plant, mixed with a lime-based binder. She sources the material from Canada (again, it couldn't be legally grown in the States until very recently), and she recognizes that hempcrete, like CBD, requires a special processing facility, of which there are not many. In fact, there is only one hempcrete processing facility in the United States.

"There are so many options with fiber and alternatives. It's endless," says Magill. "I think as we start to see more people growing [hemp] for fiber, it will start to become a no-brainer, especially if we can grow it in South Carolina."

Hemp can also be used to remediate soil.

Hemp can be used to create biofuel.

You can eat hemp seeds.

"It can handle an incredible amount of moisture without rot, or mold, or mildew. It's a plant, it's carbon negative, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere," she says. "It works well with conventional framing and it's not this crazy 'out there' method. It's kind of magical."


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