Hurricane Michael’s assault through Florida’s Panhandle has left growers moving away from traditional farming towards alternatives that may be more resilient to storms and extremes of drought and heat, such as hemp, carinata seed, and hops.
Hurricane Michael’s deadly tear through Florida’s Panhandle four months ago will help fuel a transformation of the state’s agricultural industry, experts are predicting, with significant numbers of growers moving away from traditional farming and towards a future of alternative crops such as hemp and hops.
One legacy of the 155mph storm was a $1.3bn blow to the Florida timber industry from almost 1.5m acres of lost or damaged trees, as well as the near total loss of the region’s cotton harvest and substantial impacts for cattle farmers and growers of peanuts, tomatoes and fruits including citrus and avocados.
While thousands of affected farmers in the Panhandle continue to count the cost of the hurricane and make plans for their futures, many are looking into the viability of a switch, according to Dr Glen Aiken, director of the University of Florida’s north Florida research and education centre. “As they recover, as they replace equipment, as they put their fences back up, they’re thinking of ways to make improvements that will maybe reduce the risk they suffer from hurricanes. They are thinking about alternative crops,” he said. “In the timber industry in particular they had huge losses. Some are going to replant but say they need to get some cashflow. Some of them are looking at doing something else with the land.”
Aiken’s presentation to the Florida senate’s agriculture committee this week reporting the progress of hurricane recovery in north Florida emphasised the move towards alternative crops, some of which are seen as more resilient to storms and extremes of drought and heat, and others which are harvested outside the mid-to-late summer peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.
It also highlighted an increasing demand for those crops and their byproducts, such as aviation fuel and animal feed protein from the oilseed carinata; cattle feed and brewing ingredients from hops; and the medical and wellness benefits from industrial hemp, the cannabis producing plant only recently legalised in Florida. “There’s a real interest in industrial hemp right now,” said Aiken, whose researchers are conducting one of the pilot growing programmes. “There’s growers, especially desperate growers, keeping a close eye on what we do and what we find out.
“Hemp is a very tough fibre. With chemists working on it, it could eventually serve as a biodegradable alternative to plastics, something we’re all concerned about right now. They’re even looking at it for clothing, there’s a lot of potential and it opens a lot of opportunities. It makes it a high-cash crop.”
Florida’s state leaders appear to share Aiken’s enthusiasm for a move towards industrial hemp farming. The recently elected agricultural commissioner Nikki Fried this week appointed a new state “cannabis tsar”who will work with the farming community to help develop the industry.
“Hemp is a multibillion-dollar opportunity and potential for the state of Florida and the agricultural community as an alternative crop,” said Bell, whose business consultancy work in Tennessee included persuading farmers to move out of cattle and cotton farming and into industrial hemp.
“We can finally begin to put cannabis to work for farmers, consumers and patients here in Florida.”
Aiken said that the storm’s aftermath had heightened the urgency for a new direction.
“I don’t want to insinuate that our emphasis on alternative crops was generated from the hurricane, the need was there before,” he said. “[But] now with the hurricane we feel we need to ramp this effort up. “A year ago tomato growers had huge whitefly, they wiped it out and got a good harvest, but then the hurricane hit and they lost their spring harvest. So they’re sitting there thinking, ‘You know, I don’t know if I want to put all my land in tomatoes any more, I might want to replace them with something else.’”
Also playing a significant role in the researchers’ thinking, Aiken acknowledges, is climate change. With warmer temperatures, more varieties of citrus trees can thrive in areas they did not previously. [. . .]