There is tremendous economic potential in growing hemp locally for personal consumer products and industry — but state and federal regulations need changes to boost hemp farming.
Also, farmers should be prepared to raise hemp for a few years before breaking even on their investment.
Those were the big takeaway messages from a Feb. 20 forum in Wise, sponsored by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. It took place on the University of Virginia’s College at Wise campus.
Last year, UVa-Wise became part of the university in Charlottesville’s three-year research project aimed at creating industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana varieties that can be grown in traditional tobacco-growing regions.
UVa-Wise faculty are working with the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition and other organizations. The plan calls for planting several varieties of hemp on 10 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land the college owns.
Biology professor Ryan Huish told the forum’s audience of more than 40 people that the local research is really just getting started.
Other speakers included UVa professor Michael Timko, who is leading the research project; central Kentucky hemp farmer Jane Harrod; Charles Henry, owner of The Vapor Shop in downtown Norton; and Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition Executive Director Jason Amatucci.
Hemp is in the family of cannabis plants, which also include marijuana. But industrial and medicinal hemp products do not contain enough of marijuana’s active cannabinoid, THC, to get a person high.
Timko explained that in Virginia, hemp farming currently is allowed only through university-sponsored research. Federal law still classifies hemp, like marijuana, as a Schedule I controlled substance.
Amatucci said 38 states have hemp farming pilot programs. The Virginia legislature is now considering legislation, House Bill 532 and Senate Bill 247, that would expand hemp opportunities in the commonwealth.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering a bill, H.R. 3530, that would remove hemp from the federal controlled substance list, he noted.
Harrod explained that Kentucky law is far more welcoming of hemp farming than that in Virginia.
She can produce $4,000 worth of cannabidoil, or CBD, from a tiny plot of land, she said. CBD is used for medicinal/nutritional supplement products.
Harrod is state-permitted to grow hemp on five acres and can raise 1,200 plants per acre.
Harvesting the plants is very hands-on work and incurs the biggest cost, she noted. Harrod plants by hand and spends a lot of time tending the plants as well.
Some Canadian farmers use combine machines to harvest their hemp, Harrod said.
In this part of the United States, land traditionally used to grow tobacco is excellent for hemp farming, she explained. Once the legal framework makes it easier to raise hemp for various uses, she said, “We’re sitting in the catbird’s seat here.”
However, Harrod said it took three years to reach the point of breaking even on her investment. She is just now poised to start earning a profit.
Henry said his business is the only shop in a 100-mile radius that sells hemp CDB products with no THC. He is considering whether to start farming hemp himself, he said.
When the shop opened, Henry said, he had to overcome law enforcement’s misconceptions about the hemp products. He was getting visits from state police and the Wise County/Norton prosecutor’s office.
Henry sells CBD products to people who want relief from Parkinson’s disease, parents with kids who suffer from epilepsy, people struggling with anxiety and others.
Amatucci said he anticipates a future battle with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services over regulation of CBD products. The department would like to place regulatory responsibility on the state pharmacy board, he said.
Amatucci advised that once the regulatory climate opens up more, prospective hemp farmers should protect their investment by obtaining an up-front contract for product sales. They also should keep in mind that it might take upwards of five years to get a return on investment.
Industrial hemp production for textiles and other non-consumable products will probably be the last segment of the industry to gain regulatory approval in Virginia, Amatucci said. It will require construction of at least one multi-million dollar hemp processing facility.
The panel took audience questions and comments. Those included queries from a local tobacco farmer.
He farms full-time, he said, but raising tobacco is extremely labor-intensive and it’s increasingly hard to find people who will do the work. He’s also concerned about his ability to sell hemp products.
If he could save on labor costs by harvesting hemp with a combine, he said, “I’ll put out 100 acres.”