West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt says while industrial hemp is still in the early stages in the state, the experimental crop continues to show promise as a viable farm commodity.
“While we’re still in the research and development phase in West Virginia, we have been able to approve more growers,” Leonhardt said.
In 2016 the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) licensed nine individuals to cultivate 13 acres of industrial hemp as a part of the department’s research project in collaboration with West Virginia University.
“The research is expected to conclude how well hemp grows in West Virginia, what products can be produced from the crop, and the hemp varieties best suited to grow here,” Leonhardt explained.
In 2017, the state agriculture department approved 54 applications from growers to produce approximately 1,400 acres of hemp, said Cresent Gallagher, communications director with the WVDA.
“We expect to see the number of growers increase each year,” he said.
Leonhardt said passage of the 2014 federal farm bill opened the way for hemp to be cultivated in the United States, though it remains heavily regulated.
During the 2017 West Virginia legislative session, a new statute was passed and signed into law allowing non-THC varieties of Cannabis sativa plant, known as hemp, to be cultivated with a permit through the WVDA. Under the provisions of the new law, as well as federal laws regulating industrial hemp production, West Virginia currently allows approved individuals to grow industrial hemp.
The catch, according to Leonhardt, is that the hemp grown can only contain .3 of a percent or less concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principle psychoactive compound found in marijuana, and cannot be sold outside of West Virginia.
“The legislature found that the development and use of industrial hemp can serve to improve the state’s economy and agricultural vitality and that the production of industrial hemp can be regulated so as not to interfere with the strict regulation of controlled substances in this state,” he said. “The purpose of the industrial hemp development act is to promote the economy and agriculture by permitting the development of a regulated industrial hemp industry while maintaining strict control of marijuana.”
Gallagher says approved growers must order hemp seeds through the WVDA. The state gets its seed source approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Once approved growers determine what type of hemp seeds they want, the WVDA must vet those seeds to make sure they meet the strict THC levels.
“We regulate the seeds and the growing of industrial hemp by making sure it is at the proper THC level,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher says WVDA inspectors visit industrial hemp growing and production operations to collect samples and test for THC levels.
“We do the testing at our labs in Guthrie,” he said.
Leonhardt says while the state lags behind its neighboring state of Kentucky, he believes West Virginia will continue to add more growers in years to come.
“We see great potential in the growth of the industrial hemp industry in the state,” he said.
In Kentucky, the state agriculture commissioner is forecasting record numbers of hemp growers and processors in 2018 as supporters of the experimental crop look to strengthen its foothold, according to a recent story by the Associated Press.
The state agriculture department said it has approved 225 applications from growers to produce up to 12,018 acres of hemp for research purposes this year, according to the AP report.
“Industrial hemp in 2018 will be the biggest year yet, with the most growers and the most processors and we think the most acres,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said.
Last year, Kentucky’s farmers planted more than 3,200 acres of hemp, up from 2,350 acres in 2016 and 922 acres in 2015. Experimental projects began in Kentucky with 33 acres in 2014.
National hemp statistics
The crop, which once thrived in many U.S. states, was historically used for rope. However, agriculture officials say it has thousands of possible industrial usages from herbal medicine, clothing and mulch from the fiber, hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds, and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, plastics, animal bedding and biofuels, to name just a few.
So far, 34 states have authorized hemp research, while actual production occurred in 19 states last year, with production totaling 24,841 acres, more than double the 2016 output, said Eric Steenstra, president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp.
Regulatory uncertainties are impeding bigger investments in the fledgling industry, he said.
“I think larger investors in terms of processing and building this industry are probably sitting on the sidelines until this thing becomes more clearly a commercial crop,” Steenstra said.
In 2016, 650 licensed farmers produced 12,795 acres of industrial hemp in the United States, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
CBD products from hemp
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a chemical compound derived from the cannabis plant. CBD products are legally sold in West Virginia, while medical research is ongoing regarding CBD’s potential for combating pain, anxiety, PTSD, epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders and others.
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that CBD can reduce the rate of seizures from a form of epilepsy.
Jerie Laishley, owner of Appalachian Forest Herbs in Huntington, has been in business selling native plants and herbs for about five years.
“We specialize in native forest plants, including trees, roots, oils and teas,” she said.
Laishley began selling CBD herbal medicine products at her store in October 2017 after the new law passed in West Virginia.
“I went to a local hemp farm and toured the fields and processing lab,” she said. “I learned the hemp oil may help with my inflammatory arthritic pain. I had such good results that I started selling the hemp oil, gel caps and salve.”
Laishley said her wish is that people in pain would try hemp oil before they use opiates and narcotics.
“It has worked well for me,” she said. “This might be my small contribution to try to decrease the opioid epidemic in this area.”
Appalachian Forest Herbs is located at 307 6th Ave. and sells organic, locally grown and processed full spectrum hemp oil and other hemp products, according to Laishley.
According to a 2017 Congressional Research Service Report, Americans purchase $580 million worth of hemp-based products each year.