Hemp holds promise and problems for Florida's timber industry

'We cannot make lumber out of air'
Posted at 5:47 PM, Jul 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-02 17:49:05-04

A massive pile of trees at Rex Lumber’s Bristol location isn’t as big as it usually is. Hurricane Michael made sure of that.

“It’s because of Michael in this area,” said Kenny Sparks, the lumber mill’s general manager. “We’ve been hit hard in this area.”

The category five storm destroyed about 72-million tons of Florida’s timber, an estimated $1.3 billion impact. Rex and other mills depended on those trees to keep their conveyors cutting lumber.
“We’d do 130 loads a day,” Sparks said. “But we’ve cut back to 90, sometimes 110 loads a day.”

Though Michael has long passed, a new storm is on the horizon-- hemp. Loggers, mills and other livelihoods depend on trees and don’t want growers to plant something else.
“If we don’t have a timber supply long term— we will not be able to stay here,” said Rex Lumber’s owner, Caroline Dauzat. “There are 180 jobs in this community alone.” 

Florida is allowing the growth of hemp following a new law from the last legislative session. The highly versatile plant and marijuana relative lacks the high but has many uses.

Florida’s agriculture officials expect hemp will become the state’s next hot commodity. Commissioner Nikki Fried has estimated the plant will create a $10-20 billion industry. She’s encouraged timber growers to consider the new crop. They could recoup some losses with hemp, which doesn’t take decades to mature.
“I would love for them to reforest,” Fried said. “But, it can be a ten to 20-year return on investment. In the interim, we are at least giving them another option.”
The Florida Forestry Association hasn’t officially weighed in on hemp. But, officials there say they too are encouraging the replanting trees. The group is reminding growers what’s at stake if they switch, the loss of jobs.
“You will see the industry go away,” Dauzat said. “If the timber supply does not replenish, we will, at some point, have to make a decision because we cannot make lumber out of air.”

Floridians can’t grow hemp just yet. The state agriculture department is still working to finalize rules for the program. Officials were hopeful the first plants might be ready for planting before the end of the year.