OKEECHOBEE — Could floating mats of vegetation be used to clean excess phosphorus and nitrogen from Florida waterways and lakes, using a plant that can be harvested and sold?
That’s what Steve Edmonds of Hemp4Water hopes to achieve. In a few months, he hopes to have approval for a research project on Lake Okeechobee’s Rim Canal.
Mr. Edmonds said the process of growing hemp in water is already being tested in Tennessee. The company is waiting for approval from the Florida Department of Agriculture to set up a pilot project in Florida.
“We will be applying with the Florida Department of Agriculture as soon as they release the rules for growing hemp in Florida,” said Mr. Edmonds.
The research project will help determine how much phosphorus and nitrogen each hemp plant can uptake from the water, and determine if it is possible to scale up the system to make a difference in Florida’s impaired waterways.
Hemp plants could serve as a floating wetlands system that would be harvested, roots and all, removing the nutrient load the plants absorb from the water. The hemp plants could then be used for a variety of products used in construction or biofuel.
Mr. Edmonds grew up in Stuart. “The St. Lucie River is really important to me,” he said.
The idea to use plants to remove nutrients from the water, and then harvest the plants for use in marketable products is something he has been working on for a long time, he explained.
“The more plants we can grow in the water, the more nutrients we can remove from the watershed,” he said.
Hemp was chosen for the project because of the versatility of the plant. Mr. Edmonds said the water-grown hemp will not be used for CBD oils or for rope, but there are many other uses for hemp that could use the water-grown plants.
He said it appears that when the roots are in water, more energy is devoted toward root growth. The stress causes the plants to use nutrients in higher levels, which means more phosphorus and nitrogen will be pulled from the water.
In addition, hemp plants naturally remove any heavy metals that may be present, he added.
Mr. Edmonds said he hopes to prove that hemp grown in water could be a sustainable project. When the project is scaled up sufficiently, it could produce enough marketable product to pay for the operation of the project.
To make a difference, it will have to be large acreage, he said. Lake Okeechobee’s vast waters could provide some optimal sites for aquatic hemp farming.
Part of the study will include the interaction between wildlife and the hemp plants, he said. The root system in the water should not bother the fish, he added. Birds might eat the hemp seed, which is quite nutritious.
If there are any negative interactions, “there may be a fair amount of precautions we will need to make,” Mr. Edmonds continued.
“If I can prove the data I need to prove, that’s when I’ll apply for grants to reduce the TMDL (Total Daily Maximum Load) of phosphorus and nitrogen in the waterways,” he said.
“I would love to see floating barges that span the Kissimmee River, cleaning the water before it flows into Lake Okeechobee,” Mr. Edmonds said.
The pilot project is the first step.
The 2018 Farm Bill defined hemp as an agricultural commodity. It is also reclassified hemp with regard to the Controlled Substances Act administered by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. This offers hemp farmers access to financing and crop insurance and removes trade barriers across state lines. The farm bill also described regulation of hemp production at the state level. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) submitted a state hemp plan in response to the 2018 Farm Bill. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried has been an outspoken supporter of hemp farming in Florida, which she has stated could boost the state’s economy.