On a lonely country road in the heart of Highlands County, a long line of white greenhouses arch side-by-side, looking like the segments of a giant caterpillar.
This is the home of Delray Plants in Venus, one of the largest producers of ornamental plants in the country. They grow and ship from millions of plants such as hibiscus, peace lilies, areca palms, ficus bushes and ferns to stores in 41 states and Alaska.
In 2015, a new crop may be added. Delray is one of the nurseries on the shortlist of those qualifying to grow the Charlotte's Web strain of medical marijuana. The Legislature passed a law legalizing the use of the specific strain to alleviate severe seizures on the last day of the 2014 legislative session.
Looking ahead, Amendment 2 to broaden the legalization of marijuana for general medical use is on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Randy Gilde, CEO of Delray Plants, doesn't want to think about Amendment 2 right now. He's concentrating on the feasibility of growing Charlotte's Web. His is one of the 21 initial nurseries listed by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer services as meeting the major criteria for growing the specific strain.
A new list was issued by the Agriculture Department on Friday, upping the number of nurseries in contention to 39. They include five more in the Southwest Florida region, including one each in Lee and Collier county. They are: Aris Horticulture Inc. in Alva; Trans Gro Nursery in Immokalee; and Sun Bulb Co. Inc. in Arcadia; Sunshine Foliage World, Zolfo Springs; and Tropiflora, Sarasota.
The criteria, set by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, in a last-minute amendment to the Charlotte's Web bill, says that only nurseries in the state that have been in business for at least 30 uninterrupted years can qualify. They must also be certified to grow 400,000 plants.
Five licenses will be issued, one each to a nursery in northwestern, northeastern, central, southeastern and southwestern portions of the state. The boundaries of the areas are informal and based on how Tallahassee views the regions of the state, Caldwell said.
Gilde is weighing his options. So many things are unclear, starting with the boundaries of the five regions, he said. "There are so many variables that haven't been announced. The selection process, for one."
The state Health Department has until Jan. 1 to come up with the application, he said. Then there are four other items on the list of criteria for qualifying to compete for a license. They ensure that the nursery will handle the marijuana from seed to sale.
Adapting and expanding a nursery to meet those criteria will probably cost at least $1 million, Gilde said.
Eric Cord, of Windmill Farms in Zolfo Springs, is monitoring the process. He's 50-50 on going forward with growing Charlotte's Web, even though he meets the major qualifications.
"The whole issue is there is not any income stream at this point, as well as what it would take to get into it," he said. Expanding his greenhouses could cost $25 to $45 per square foot, he said. "Every expansion we make, it takes three to four years to recoup."
Windmill Farms would be responsible for planting it, harvesting it, extracting the oil, packaging it and dispensing it, he said.
"I feel like we should be in a dark room with the lights off," he said.
Nevertheless, "There is going to be intense competition," said Gene McAvoy, director of the Hendry County Extension Office. "I think a lot of people realize if you can get in on the ground floor, it might be something. If you don't, you might miss the boat."
Many nurseries that have been shut out are complaining that the criteria is arbitrary and unfair. For example, at least 30 nurseries in Lee and Collier counties have been in business 30 years or more. Others who have been in business less time say they shouldn't be forbidden to participate either.
Like Pringle Lane Farms in Immokalee, in business since 2004. "I think it's absolutely absurd," said Cheryl Samet, co-owner. "We totally feel shut out, in all honesty I don't see how any of that is fair."
The farm grows bell peppers in 440,000 square feet of greenhouse.
"We invested in futuristic greenhouses with computerized drip irrigation and computerized water systems, to give everybody the purest and best product that we could, and we're a family farm and it's just trying to survive and provide jobs," Samet said. "This is an opportunity for people like ourselves."
Some blame has been foisted on the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association with some media reports that the association helped Caldwell write the restrictive amendment.
Not so, said Ben Bolusky, association CEO. "The association did not help write the amendment," he said. "What (the association) did was throughout the session was to emphasize to legislators that if it was going to move forward on any type of medical marijuana bill, what they needed to do was ensure Florida agriculture, and especially nurseries that have greenhouse infrastructure, are not left on the cutting room floor."
Lack of experience
Even if all the rules and regulations are put in place in a smooth and timely manner, the fact is that the nurseries with 30-plus years in business that will grow Charlotte's Web or any other strain of marijuana, if Amendment 2 passes, have no experience in growing pot.
That's where out-of-state companies such as Terra Tech of California come in, as well as the local growers it partners with, like Palm Creek Produce in North Fort Myers.
Terra Tech grows medical marijuana, has a dispensary, along with Edible Garden, a hydroponic produce company.
"We are looking for multiple people to partner with," said Evan Nison, director of the Terra Tech east coast division. A Florida nursery could partner with Terra Tech to provide experience, equipment and capital needed to mount such an operation, he said.
"We're working on talking to everyone," said Kenneth VandeVrede, Terra Tech chief operations officer. He wouldn't say who he talked to, or whether he contacted all 21 nurseries on the initial list.
But James Lewis, owner of Palm Creek Produce in North Fort Myers, is excited about Charlotte's Web. He and his son Ryan grow herbs such as lavender and rosemary for Terra Tech's Edible Garden brand.
If Terra Tech can partner with one of the licensed nurseries, then they may play a part in assisting. The fledgling, one-acre operation just shipped out 60,000 plants and has room to expand, he said.
"They already passed it," Lewis said of Charlotte's Web. "They gotta get things rockin' here."
And if Amendment 2 passes in November, Terra Tech will be ready to "flip the switch" when other cannabis is involved, Nison said.
"Florida certainly has the potential to be a huge market," Nison said. The aging population of Baby Boomers is one indication, he said. "I think it's safe to say 5-10 years down the road," there will be a legal cannabis industry for medical or adult use, he predicted.
What it takes to grow pot
The full criteria to qualify as a contender for a Charlotte's Web license
• The technical and technological ability to cultivate and produce low-THC cannabis; certified to grow 400,000 plants; be in business for 30 contiguous years.
• The ability to secure the premises, resources and 24 personnel necessary to operate a dispensary.
• The ability to maintain accountability of all raw materials, finished products and any byproducts.
• A "reasonably located" dispensary.
• The financial ability to maintain operations for the duration of the 2-year approval cycle. If approved, applicant must post a $5 million performance bond.
Source: Charlotte's Web Bill, Caldwell Amendment