John Pendarvis strode across the barren field, kicking up plumes of dust with his feet.
It was Tuesday morning, and there was work to do. The cotton harvest was coming in. There was a corn maze to run on weekends leading up to Halloween. Peanuts came out of the ground from another field on Sunday.
But these fields were empty. He bent down and picked up a solitary green stalk — one of the last remaining pieces of thousands of hemp plants he was growing on his family’s farm near Harleyville. A faint, resinous smell clung to the air. It was fading fast.
Pendarvis, 38, was arrested Sept. 19 after state officials alleged he was in violation of the S.C. Hemp Farming Act. Authorities said that half of his 20 acres of hemp were growing in unregistered fields. He was charged with a misdemeanor by the State Law Enforcement Division.
But the law doesn’t specify any punishment for breaking the S.C. Department of Agriculture’s strict licensing rules. It will be up to a judge to decide the punishment if Pendarvis pleads guilty or is convicted after a trial.
Pendarvis is the first farmer to be charged with violating the Palmetto State’s new hemp cultivation law. The development has worried some lawmakers and farmers. Others say authorities followed procedure.
For the Dorchester County farmer, the destruction of half his hemp represents a more immediate challenge.
“This was the only thing with any profit in it this year,” Pendarvis said.
His family has been farming in South Carolina for a century, since his father’s grandfather acquired land in the Harleyville area in 1919. Today, his family also farms in Orangeburg, Berkeley and Colleton counties. They have about 3,000 acres in all.
Pendarvis grows corn, cotton, peanuts, soy and some fresh produce. Up until around 2008, he also grew tobacco, which had served as a cash crop for years until changes in regulations made it unprofitable.
Recently, the U.S.-China tariffs and escalating trade war have sucked any profit out of crops like corn and soy, he said.
“The commodity prices, there’s nothing to them,” Pendarvis said. “The input costs are so high, just ain’t nothing left. You’re basically breaking even. I really went to hemp to turn it into a cash crop like tobacco was.”
A controversial case
Since Pendarvis’ arrest, the S.C. Department of Agriculture has heard from farmers who are concerned and upset about his arrest, said Eva Moore, a spokeswoman for the agency.
But the situation is more nuanced than most people realize.
“We also heard from farmers who understand that the Hemp Farming Act required us to report this incident to law enforcement,” Moore said.
According to an arrest affidavit, 10 acres of Pendarvis’ hemp crop were growing in fields that did not match the GPS coordinates he submitted to the state in his license application.
Pendarvis said he tried to update the coordinates but had that request denied.
The Agriculture Department contends he did not make a mistake or error in submitting the coordinates. It was a willful violation, according to an arrest affidavit.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said that in addition to the GPS coordinates being off, some of Pendarvis’ plants tested above the federal 0.3 percent limit for THC content.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties.
The law allows farmers who make mistakes in their applications to be put on “corrective action plans” so they have a chance to fix any errors but willful violations require state agriculture officials to reach out to SLED and notify the Attorney General’s Office, Moore said.
Moore declined to go into the details of Pendarvis’ case, citing the ongoing investigation.
She did reaffirm her agency’s commitment to helping farmers navigate the shifting landscape under the new hemp law, to helping them stay in compliance with the law and its work to support hemp processors so farmers have a market for their crop.
Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, said challenges are inevitable at the start of any new program.
Regarding Pendarvis’ case, Hiott believes the Agriculture Department did exactly what it was supposed to do.
“We fully understand what the problems are that have been brought to our attention,” he said. “I want every single person that’s growing hemp to make a profit. Hang in there with us and we’ll get this thing figured out.”
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he is troubled by Pendarvis’ case.
In August, the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion stating that SLED should seek judicial approval before seizing any hemp grown in violation of state law in order to ensure due process.
Davis said he was horrified to hear that authorities had destroyed Pendarvis’ crops and arrested him.
“That’s the antithesis of due process,” he said. “What harm would there have been in serving a notice on Mr. Pendarvis and appearing before a judge? We’re talking about industial hemp. We’re not talking about cocaine … we’re not talking about something that does public harm. What happens now if SLED is wrong?”
Keel said, his agency sought proper legal advice before taking action in every step of the case.
The SLED chief also pointed to a participation agreement signed by all farmers who obtain hemp licenses.
“In that participation agreement … the permitted grower acknowledges and consents to the forfeiture and destruction, without compensation, of hemp material if it’s found to have a measured THC content of more than 0.3 (percent) or if it’s grown in an area not licensed by (the S.C. Department of Agriculture),” Keel said.
Based on that agreement, the chief said SLED followed up with the state Attorney General’s Office, who said that agreement released SLED from having to bring the case before a judge prior to seizing and destroying the crop.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat who is also serving as Pendarvis’ attorney in the case, disagrees.
“Under any scenario, he was entitled to due process,” Hutto said.
The lawmaker has questions surrounding the language in the participation agreement and said he has not been provided with any opportunities to hear SLED’s and state Agriculture Department’s claims in greater detail.
A fledgling industry
South Carolina farmers planted the state’s first hemp crop since World War II in 2018. On March 28 this year, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill expanding the hemp permitting program and removing limits on the number of acres farmers could grow.
The Agriculture Department handed out hemp permits to 114 farmers this year. Pendarvis was one of them.
Hemp has skyrocketed in popularity, in part because of its use in making cannabidiol, CBD, that is believed to help alleviate symptoms for variety of physical ailments. It and marijuana are varieties of cannabis sativa, but hemp will not get you high.
Adrian Wilkes, an attorney and hemp farmer in Fairfield County, continues to be optimistic about the future of hemp in South Carolina.
“The plant is such a versatile plant that we’re still finding new uses for it,” he said.
Businesses have found ways of turning hemp into a lumber replacement; BMW is using hemp-derived plastic in some of its cars and manufacturers have improved the comfort and softness of hemp cloth, Wilkes said. But processing hemp for use in the CBD sector remains the most viable option for most South Carolina farmers, because the state largely lacks the industrial capacity to manufacture other hemp-derived products.
In the CBD sector, smokable hemp garners a significantly higher price per pound than CBD oil or extracts, he said.
But on July 10, the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that left the legality of smokable hemp up to law enforcement agencies.
“When you have law enforcement deciding what the law is, there’s a lot of room for trouble,” Wilkes said.
The opinion has led to many businesses pulling smokable hemp from their shelves, or taking precautions to carefully label smokable hemp products to show they are not marijuana.
But hemp and marijuana are virtually impossible to tell apart without scientific testing. They look and smell the same.
Asked about the issue of smokable hemp, Keel said the state Attorney General’s Office and the law as written have made it clear, in his eyes, that smokable hemp is a raw, unprocessed product and illegal under the law.
Some business owners, like Chris Dix, founding partner of I Heart CBD, which has locations in the Charleston area, say they are keeping the product on shelves for as long as they can. The reason is simple: customer demand.
But the decision has led to challenges.
Dix said he’s encountered difficulties in securing leases for his businesses because landlords don’t want to assume any risk for having smokable hemp at a property, banks have been reluctant to do business and he is unable to process credit cards, all because I Heart CBD sells smokable hemp.
Jason Eargle of Brackish Solutions works with Columbia-based City Roots to grow hemp for CBD oil.
He is concerned about government interference.
“I don’t want overreach by law enforcement or regulatory agencies to give the program a black eye,” Eargle said of smokable hemp seizures that have occurred in the past year. “To me, it’s vast overreach and completely out of line. We’ll be fighting that going forward.”
He has heard of stores around the Midlands, Upstate and Lowcountry that either had law enforcement take smokable hemp or opted to remove it themselves.
Eargle said those business owners can just sell the product out of state.
Asked about the smokable hemp, Hiott was unambiguous — under the Hemp Farming Act, the product is legal.
He intends to clarify that point when the legislative session begins in January.
An uncertain future
David DeWitt, a Clemson Extension agent working with many of the hemp permit holders, said one of the largest issues facing the hemp industry around the country is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet developed federal guidelines for the plant.
Without those regulations, state lawmakers and agencies can’t know what will or won’t be allowed under federal law, he said. South Carolina may have to change its hemp farming rules to line up with the federal directives.
Still, DeWitt is optimistic.
“It’s a little like the settlers of the Wild West,” he said. “(The hemp industry) expanded really quickly. There’s always hurdles. I don’t want people to be scared.”
As for Pendarvis, the stress of his arrest and the challenges of low commodity prices and losing half of a crop he was counting on for income is a challenge.
Later this month, the farmer expects to harvest his remaining hemp crop. He’s concentrating on moving forward.
Standing among his remaining 10 acres, Pendarvis examined the crop. A heavy odor hung in the air, the unmistakable smell of cannabis.
Pendarvis took a bud and rubbed it between his hands.
“Feel how sticky it is.”
Thomas Novelly and Jessica Holdman contributed to this report.