The Virginia state legislature recently passed a bill that will allow farmers to grow hemp statewide. So area kombucha fanatics and music festivalgoers can now update their wardrobes with local goods just like the rest of us.
This, of course, is just the type of joke industrial hemp advocates abhor. Hemp, they say, is a great cash crop, contains a negligible amount of the psychoactive drug that makes weed so much fun and could join soybeans and corn on any farm or make up for former tobacco growers’ lost revenues.
Hemp—it ain’t just for necklaces and Festy bags anymore.
“The reason the industry has so much issue is because of its cousin,” says Jason Amatucci of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition. “But in some states, it has been marijuana that has pushed hemp. We’ve done a lot of research, and people now understand what hemp is and what it is not.”
And what is it exactly? “It’s a great rotation crop,” according to Amatucci and other local agricultural experts.
Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. How bad could it be?
According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, hemp was grown extensively at Monticello in the late 1700s and used primarily for clothes-making. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 put hemp on the same list of controlled substances as smokable dope. The non-psychotropic plant still sits on that list today, though the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, introduced by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is currently on the fast track to the Senate floor for a vote.
This isn’t the first time hemp advocacy has gained ground. As early as 1999, the Virginia General Assembly heeded its constituency and called for the feds to revise their hemp policies. At the time, however, hemp was still closely tied to marijuana, and plenty of folks thought legalizing it meant dank nugs would start popping up in farms all over the country.
Virginia took its own action several years ago, passing the 2014 Agricultural Act and allowing research institutions to work with commercial farmers to grow industrial hemp. The bill did not allow anyone to profit from hemp sales, though, so universities had been confined to exploring future opportunities, with a focus on developing seed and varietals that could thrive in Virginia, exploring applications and processing methods and understanding the soil-fixing properties of the plant.
“Every time farmers put it in, they see their other crops do better,” Amatucci says. “It goes deep and opens up the soil, provides nutrients and more aeration into the soil. It’s a great thing for compact and hard clay soils.”
In April 2018, the state legislature and Governor Ralph Northam enacted House Bill 532 and Senate Bill 247, which allow Virginians to grow and process industrial hemp without being a participant in a research program. The legislation has opened the door to farmers all over the state to register as hemp growers and processors, effective July 1.
Tracking Virginia hemp
Industrial hemp has been around Virginia for hundreds of years, but its history has been marked by setbacks.
Thomas Jefferson references hemp seed in a letter. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation notes hemp was grown at Monticello primarily for clothing fabrication.
Hemp goes on the same federal list of controlled substances as marijuana.
Virginia Legislature passes resolutions calling for a revised federal hemp policy.
Virginia Legislature makes it legal to grow hemp in association with a research entity.
Virginia Legislature opens the door to commercial hemp growth and creates a registry for industrial cultivators; Congress pushes the Hemp Farming Act, which would remove hemp from its list of controlled substances.
Until the new legislation takes effect, researchers at institutions like James Madison University, and more recently the University of Virginia, controlled the state’s hemp game. Michael Timko has headed up the effort at UVA.
“One of the research’s points of emphasis is finding the variety that will best perform and offer the best advantages in Virginia,” Timko says.
But UVA’s first successful harvest was only last October, and Timko says it will be a steep climb to fire up Virginia’s hemp production and compete with other states. The two biggest issues are processing the harvest and maintaining a consistent supply of quality seed through replanting efforts.
Timko and his team are replanting seed from last year’s trial harvest and are bullish about its prospects this year. He says they’ll be looking into certifying some of their seed this year, which is not a requirement but would give farmers confidence that the product they’re buying has the cannabinoid levels and performance characteristics they expect.
Timko believes the new bill, which opens the door to non-research entities looking to grow hemp, should only help university research teams, as they’re likely to grow their list of participating farmers. UVA is expecting a number as high as 15 this year.
“We have our eyes on the larger scope of the research and being ready to contribute to the industry,” Timko says. “From a research point of view, this year is a transitional year, and when we move towards farmers being able to grow without being in partnership with the university, I still think they will be engaged in the research.”
Amatucci is similarly optimistic, saying the new law is a “good foundation for businesses to feel comfortable risking the investment of time and energy to create this industry.” He says 2019 should be a good first year of commercialized hemp growth, but there are still roadblocks, as the industry is “in its infancy.”
Marty Phipps has been flipping hemp in Virginia longer than just about anyone. As a major distributor of hemp animal bedding, he’s purchased his raw material from foreign suppliers for years. Now that’s changing.
Phipps said that by 2019, he will have a deal in place with a U.S. processor, which will mean good things for his balance sheet and also indicates “the industry is moving faster than [he] thought.”
Animal bedding, oils, clothing and other textiles are just the beginning of the applications in which hemp could be useful, Phipps says. He points out hemp fibers can be blended into plastic products, for example, without changing their customer-facing properties.
And if the market’s there, farmers will follow.
“Industrial hemp allows the farmer to have another option to put in his field for a source of revenue,” Phipps says. “If a farmer is growing soybeans, someone else is setting the price. If he can grow hemp as well, we might see the farmer make more money in those fields. It puts the ball back into the farmers’ hands.”
Advocates say hemp is also good for consumers, pointing to the seeds’ high omega oils content and the processed goods’ low dust and biodegradability.
With much of the stigma associated with hemp a thing of the past, Amatucci and Timko agree the only barriers to growth at this point are sorting out the supply chain, from seed development to hemp processing to sales channels.
“It’s not going to be overnight,” Amatucci says. “But if farmers are interested in this, it will return something on the investment. They just have to be patient, learn a new crop and wait for the market to catch up.”