The second Industrial Hemp Summit took place late last month, on the heels of the 2018 Farm Bill’s passage in December. That legislation lifted restrictions on growing hemp in the U.S.
Legalization is just the first step in building America’s hemp industry, and summit participants discussed the opportunities and challenges ahead. The event drew more than 300 people from 18 states, Canada and Great Britain.
Entrepreneurs, university researchers, farmers and other stakeholders discussed issues of establishing a supply chain and building markets for hemp products such as food, paper, clothing, building materials and personal care products.
“Industrial hemp is a rural development opportunity that allows small farms to get into growing hemp. It may also provide a way to engage young people with returning to the family farm,” said Kimley Blanks, agriculture and development director for Halifax County.
Currently, the U.S. is largely dependent on imports, mostly from Canada and China, both for hemp products and hemp as an ingredient for further processing. Industry estimates report U.S. hemp product sales at nearly $700 million annually, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Grown in the U.S. until the 1950s, hemp had been a significant agricultural crop since Colonial times, when it was grown for making ropes, fishing nets and canvas sails.
The new farm bill removes industrial hemp, which is defined as a cannabis plant with a tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, concentration under 0.3 percent, from the Controlled Substances Act and places it under supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For now, cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in industrial hemp that can be added to products such as beverages, health products and pet snacks, is still subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.
Representatives of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation report that interest in the crop is widespread, and they are fielding questions about its cultivation and marketing from farmers. Tony Banks, a VFBF commodity marketing specialist, remains cautiously optimistic about the evolving business.
“A big challenge for the hemp industry is to determine the proper regulatory requirements from the state and federal government. Industrial hemp has potential to become a new industry, but until some regulatory structure is in place for plant varieties, production systems and end-use products, it will be the Wild West for the next several years,” he said.
After attending the summit, Banks concluded, “There are still a lot of questions to be answered, especially on the product development side. Regulation is necessary for the market to grow responsibly and provide economic opportunity for producers and processors.”
Shirley Archer, owner of Bright Meadows Farm, also is looking for a new crop to grow on her Nathalie farm.
For years, Archer’s family farm grew tobacco, but when that crop was no longer as profitable after the federal government eliminated quota and price controls, her family diversified by planting grapes, building a winery and growing blueberries.
She said right now she has fields doing nothing.
She expressed her disappointed that even though bills to make the crop legal have made their way through Virginia’s legislature, it has not happened as yet.
“But I can’t see growing hemp yet,” Archer said, adding legislators have waited too late this year for farmers to get seeds and plant a hemp crop. “I don’t want to grow it if there’s no place for it to go.”
Erin Williams of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who served as a panelist at the summit, said there is a significant interest in growing industrial hemp, especially in Southside Virginia.
“VDACS has issued 140 industrial hemp grower registrations and 30 industrial hemp processor registrations since July, and more than 250 grower applications are pending renewal or approval,” Williams said.
Since the 2014 Farm Bill created a pilot research program, public universities have been able to grow and study hemp. Glenn Rodes, a panelist at the summit from Rockingham County, has grown hemp the past three years as part of James Madison University’s research efforts.
“I’m interested in hemp as an energy crop to make biofuels,” Rodes explained. He has used the seed to make biodiesel for his farm equipment, a seed processing byproduct to feed his livestock and hemp stalks to provide his cattle with bedding.
VFBF National Affairs Coordinator Ben Rowe, who attended the summit, offered a suggestion for interested growers. The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation conforming Virginia’s law to that found in the farm bill, as well as establishing a framework for THC testing and other requirements for hemp, he noted.
“That legislation has passed and is headed to the governor for consideration,” Rowe said. “In the meantime, existing state law stands, and interested growers are encouraged to contact VDACS for details on registration.”
Hemp conference highlights benefits for South Boston
The stigma of hemp is slowly going up in smoke, as more and more farmers are finding it to be a suitable financial alternative to growing tobacco.
South Boston Town Manager Tom Raab, who attended the two-day conference on hemp in Danville last week, has adopted a progressive approach to the hemp issue, and he thinks hemp production can be an economic tool for the area.
A hemp processing plant locating in South Boston or Halifax County would be key to the growth of hemp production in the area, Raab pointed out.
Virginia currently does not have any processing plants, he explained.
Hurdles remain, including the costs associated with growing the crop and the fact there is no crop insurance offered for hemp production at present.
A grower needs a license to grow industrial hemp, and the THC level has to be below .3 percent in order for the farmer to market their crop, Raab explained. Any THC levels higher than .3 percent would necessitate destroying the crop.
THC is the active ingredient found in marijuana, a close relative of the hemp plant.
Raab recalled statistics from the conference that estimated it costs approximately $13,000 an acre just to plant a crop of hemp, but growers can net from $20,000 to $25,000 an acre from a hemp crop.
“It was a lot of information and a lot to digest. I think there were 18 states and two countries represented,” said Raab.
“I think the volume of hemp production has to rise in order to get a processing plant interested in locating to the area,” added Raab, who noted there were three varieties of hemp, including a plant grown for CBD oil, a plant grown for seeds but whose stock can be used for its fiber and another hemp plant grown just for the fiber.
A farmer has to decide what he wants to grow hemp for and what a potential processing plant wants, explained Raab. It’s also recommended that if someone wants to grow hemp, it would be best for the grower to have a contract with the processor.
“I’m encouraged,” added Raab. "It was a productive conference.”