Meet a Researcher Studying Industrial Hemp in Florida

By Julia Lynn Rubin

In 2017, the Florida Senate enacted a statue that legally allowed land-grant universities to establish pilot programs in hemp. With its fantastic weather and subtropical climate, the state is an excellent place for growing hemp year-round. It could very well become the next American leader in hemp, and researchers like Dr. Zachary Brym are leading the charge.

Dr. Brym is Program Coordinator of the University of Florida’s pilot program, the Assistant Professor of Agroecology, and represents the Department of Agronomy’s Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead. Holding a Ph.D in ecology from Utah State University, he’s particularly interested in the specialization of crop physiology and computational biology, though his academic journey was not always so clearly mapped out.

“I went to college at the University of Michigan,” he tells Remedy Review. “And at that time, I was still unsure whether or not I was going to be a biologist or a musician. Fortunately, I found biology and the life sciences. Biology sort of resonated with me for the complex problems and unknowns that the discipline was looking to investigate.”

Dr. Brym wanted to use his knowledge in biology to examine a larger ecological picture and look closer into sustainability. This led him to the study of agricology (the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems) in his graduate work, with a special focus on the perspective of community ecology.

Specifically, the University of Florida pilot program team is excited to explore the diversity of uses and cropping systems for industrial hemp.

“As I mentioned, my background in agricology diversity is one of the foundational principles of what we do: diversity of plants, diversity of farming systems, diversity of people, and communities in the work that we do,” says Dr. Brym. “We’re also keen on trying to expand the use of hemp in the large cattle operations here in the state of Florida, potentially using it as a feed for cattle, building materials, and moving into the engineering side of things.”

At the end of the two-year pilot program, Dr. Brym explains that he and his team will then make a report on their findings to the state of Florida, introducing good varieties of hemp that the state can then use to grow high-quality products.  They also plan to help establish the infrastructure for the regulation of hemp, and get regional farmers enthusiastic and educated about the crop in the process.

Currently, the program’s research team is small, with just nine faculty members from the University of Florida on board. But they have plans to expand and hire more post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, agricultural technicians, as well as involve local farmers in partnerships, workshops, and field days. Dr. Brym expects they will hire around 20 innovators to join in on the research, and that number may double in the next year.

But as with any groundbreaking new project, there comes a number of challenges, especially since hemp–which resembles marijuana at first glance–comes with its share of stigma.

“Really what it comes down to is that cannabis marijuana is illegal, and it’s really challenging to distinguish marijuana from industrial hemp,” says Dr. Byrm. “How do you distinguish those two? Well, it comes down to a chemical test. You have to extract and measure the total THC in the plant. And you can’t do that visually.”

Dr. Brym wants to help bring clarity and awareness to hemp, especially as it may pertain to law enforcement officers who have to make decisions on the spot about what type of cannabis they’ve found.

“It’s almost less a stigma and more lack of clarity, right? It’s been illegal for close to a century. We’ve got to figure out how to step through that diligently and thoughtfully.”

The pilot program at Florida aims to add to the current conversation around both hemp and CBD products, especially as more people and organizations obtain the authority to grow, produce, and manufacture hemp as an industrial crop.

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