Could Southern Virginia be a global leader in the industrial hemp industry once again?

 

Southern Virginia is primed to be a global leader in research, growing, and processing hemp for the manufacturing of industrial hemp products.

This is due to the area’s deep agricultural base and the research capabilities of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), a regional economic development resource located in Danville, Virginia.  IALR’s Applied Research division is actively expanding its hemp knowledge base and research capabilities, having recently acquired an elite piece of agricultural testing equipment.

IALR is also actively educating people in the region about the hemp industry. On July 31, 2019, the economic transformation catalyst hosted a speaker on the topic of industrial hemp.  Susan E. Cromer, the founder and owner of the LilyHemp Artisanal Gourmet featured in Innovation Mill in Vinton, Virginia, provided an educational talk on the status of the hemp industry and the many benefits of hemp.

What is hemp?

According to Aaron Cadena, Editor in Chief at CBDorigin.com, “hemp” commonly refers to certain varieties of the plant Cannabis which contain 0.3 percent or less THC content and which are harvested to produce commercial and industrial products. According to the Brookings Institution, this amount of THC has no psychoactive effects.

With the passing of the Agricultural Act of 2018, the legal definition of hemp was changed to match this common understanding.

Hemp is not synonymous with “marijuana” and has an entirely different cultivation and application.  According to Cadena, marijuana commonly refers to certain varieties of the plant Cannabis which contain more than 0.3 percent THC content and which can induce psychotropic or euphoric effects.

For an in-depth look at the differences between hemp and marijuana, check out Cadena’s 2018 article here.

History of hemp in Virginia

Hemp has a long history in Virginia. Cromer shared that over 200 years ago, Virginia was the largest producer of hemp. At that time, hemp was primarily grown for fiber and seed for a variety of uses, including textiles and food.

Perhaps in part due to misunderstanding about the differences between hemp and marijuana, “the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 and the Controlled Substances Act blocked farmers from growing hemp. The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration in the plant was irrelevant.” (Source: VirginiaPlaces.org)

Decades passed and growing hemp remained prohibited in the United States. Then, “in 2014, the US Congress authorized state agriculture departments and universities/colleges to grow hemp, so long as the [THC] concentration did not exceed 0.3 percent. Within Virginia, James Madison University (JMU), University of Virginia (UVA), Virginia State University (VSU), and Virginia Tech (VT) began research programs. In 2018, the state authorized private institutions of higher education to join in the research. In 2016, the four state-owned universities planted 37 acres in hemp. By 2018, that grew to 135 acres on both privately-owned land and public land.” (Source: VirginiaPlaces.org)

“The Virginia General Assembly established a program in 2018 that allowed farmers to grow industrial hemp without being associated with a university research program. Registration with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services made the crop a legal product.” (Source: VirginiaPlaces.org)

According to Mark Gignac, Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, “the new law and registration process have driven a massive increase in the acreage of hemp being grown in Virginia to well over 8,000 acres.”

Methods of growing hemp

Cromer explained there are two primary methods of growing hemp based upon the grower’s intention for the crop.  The first method focuses on growing for fiber or seed, to produce industrial hemp products. Industrial hemp has over 50,000 known uses. It can be used to produce anything from textiles to a concrete alternative.  Hemp can also be eaten as a supplement in the form of hemp seeds, seed oil, hemp protein powder, and hemp hearts. According to Cromer, hemp food products have all of the Omega 3 vitamins that most people need to replace what typically either might be met with fish oil capsules or fish.

While the potential end uses are vast, growing for fiber or seed requires infrastructure for processing the crop be available every 50 to 100 miles. This means additional processing facilities are needed in Virginia.

While this infrastructure for growing fiber or seed is developed, Cromer believes many of Virginia’s growers will remain focused on growing hemp for Cannabidiol, or CBD.  CBD products are in high demand, making growing for CBD oils and other products more lucrative than growing for fiber or seed, according to Cromer.

Risks of growing hemp

Because growing hemp was so recently legalized in Virginia, regulatory agencies and support services are catching up to the needs of the hemp industry.  For example, according to Cromer, crop insurance for hemp is currently not available, but it may be available as soon as 2020. Crop insurance will be a huge benefit to growers to offset the many risks involved with growing hemp.

In addition to the constant variable of weather, which impacts all agriculture, hemp growers must be aware of the quality of the soil being used. According to Cromer, hemp has the ability to “clean” the soil in which it is planted. If the grower has farmed soil with pesticides in a three-year window prior to growing hemp, the hemp may draw the toxins out of the soil, which could lead to failed testing.  While helpful for restoring the soil, the grower is at risk for having to destroy the entire crop if it fails testing.

Growing in greenhouses is one way to counteract the risks of weather and soil quality.

“North Carolina plans to grow about 5 million square feet of indoor hemp using greenhouse space, which is equivalent to about 150 acres. Growing in a greenhouse reduces many risks, but is also very expensive,” Gignac said.

For the CBD method, there is another risk. The CBD grower must exclude male plants from the crop and only include female plants. Cromer foreshadows that once people start growing hemp for fiber, pollen from male plants mixed into those crops could travel up to 10 miles and corrupt another crop being grown for CBD, which requires female plants only. Lawsuits already exist in the western states where people have tried to prevent their neighbors from growing male plants that could spread seed to their properties.

Each registered grower’s plants must be tested and must not contain more than a minimal amount of THC. If the plant becomes “hot” or has too much THC, the entire crop will have to be destroyed.

“We are working with the best manufacturers of equipment and other research groups to establish testing standards. Testing is an important step in the hemp economy, and there is a lot of work to do to define the parameters for different types of hemp-based products,” said Gignac. “There are no state or federal standards. These are coming, but they are yet to be defined. We want to help our region’s farmers test the hemp they are growing, to help improve the quality of Southern Virginia’s hemp crops over time. The better the crops, the better the products.”

Ready to get involved in Southern Virginia’s hemp industry?

Agriculture is big business in Virginia, and the reemergence of hemp as a legal crop will certainly have an exponential economic impact in the Southern Virginia region and across the state. Here are a few ways you can get involved with the hemp industry in Southern Virginia:

 

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