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Hemp industry reps caution growers to look before leaping / June 12, 2019

Hemp farming is not for the small family farmer or the hobby farmer, and growing hemp will not make you rich — that is the message that officials with two large hemp production companies shared with local officials and farm producers who are looking to jump into the still-developing business.

Members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors’ Ag Committee met last week with hemp industry representatives at a special meeting in South Hill, and ag committee chair Jim Jennings passed on their guidance to fellow board members Monday during the regular monthly meeting of supervisors in Boydton.

Scott Gupton with Pyxus International (formerly known as AOI or Alliance One International), an international storage, sales, and distribution company primarily focused on tobacco products, offered some good news: for large tobacco growers and those with available labor and equipment, hemp production is similar to tobacco growing. Hemp is grown in much the same way. It is bedded up, dried in tobacco barns, and planted and harvested with much of the same equipment and labor currently used by tobacco growers.

Gupton said he expects the legal market for hemp to grow from a $9.8 billion business to a $20.1 billion in the United States over the next four years. Cannabidiol (CBD), the product most often extracted from hemp, currently is a $600 million industry in the United States and is expected to grow to $22 billion over the same four-year period.

Even for the veteran farmer, growing hemp involves some complicating factors not found with tobacco production and thus it is not cheap to grow, according to Gupton and Josh Mays, an agronomist with Criticality, a hemp-growing and -processing company based in Wilson, N.C.

Because hemp naturally stores toxic substances such as heavy metals and pesticides, the crop can be unmarketable if these toxins are found in large enough quantities in CBD or other products.

Since CBD oil will likely be classified as a supplement that is ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the human body, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will limit the percentage of various toxic substances allowed in the product.

That is the first hurdle hemp farmers must overcome. According to Scott Proheter, vice president with Criticality, farmers must be able to grow the plant in soil that is free of heavy metals and residual pesticides. His company tests for 61 such substances.

Gupton added that reputable processing companies looking to buy hemp will ask the farmer to produce proof that their growing plot is “clean.”

The second hurdle that hemp farmers face in growing hemp is biological. Hemp produces both male and female plants. Producers only want female plants, which produce flowers, not seeds. So, the hemp farmer must take steps to ensure that his product does not receive male pollen during its growth cycle.

Propheter also explained that too many seeds will reduce the value of the hemp plant.

The bottom line, according to Propheter, is that the hemp farmer can expect to spend about $14,000 per acre in production, but will double that money with a quality crop. The typical farmer can expect to receive between $28,000 and $33,600 per acre for their hemp crop. Propheter based that number on the current prices paid by Criticality, which he said is $28 per pound for top quality hemp. The per-acre yield is between 1,000 to 1,200 pounds from 1,500 to 1,800 plants.

Mays added one additional hurdle. He cautioned farmers to grow hemp away from public view. Since the plant is the same as marijuana but with lower levels of THC — the active ingredient in pot — passersby who enjoy recreational marijuana may steal the plants, in part or in whole, Mays warned. Since smoking or eating industrial hemp will not get a person high, Mays also pointed out the thief will be disappointed, but he or she won’t know the difference by simply looking at the plant.

The final word of advice that Gupton and Propheter offered to prospective growers was to contract with a reputable processor before planting. Even though they expect the market to continue to grow, the lack of federal regulations and the inability of the farmer to purchase crop insurance coverage for hemp makes growing hemp financially risky.

Already two major tobacco companies are in the hemp/cannabis business: Pyxus and Altria (Philip Morris). Both operate as vertically integrated businesses, meaning they contract with growers, and own or work with extraction facilities and production facilities.

In other business at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday:

» Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce King showed off his new police dog, Bak, to board members. The nearly two-year-old German Shepherd has already completed six weeks of training with King and is qualified to track, search for narcotics and items containing a human scent, and perform positive alerts — a stance which notifies his handler officer that the dog has spotted the person or item that he was instructed to find.

King said Bak can also apprehend a suspect by biting down on a suspect’s limbs and holding them until an officer arrives.

For his part, King said he has had to learn to speak some Dutch since that was the language spoken by Bak’s initial trainer. Bak still needs to hear his commands in Dutch.

Sheriff Bobby Hawkins said Bak and two other police dogs on his staff have already “made a name for themselves,” though he did not say which operations the dogs have been involved in or what their role was.

Money to purchase the dog and train King was donated to the Sheriff’s Office by Walbridge Construction, the general contractor working at the Microsoft Data Center in Boydton.

» Supervisors approved three supplemental appropriations: $12,096.50 for the Circuit Court Clerk from the Virginia State Library for microfilming, $68,224.53 for the Virginia Growth Alliance from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and $5,187.50 in insurance money for the Sheriff’s office.

The Virginia Growth Alliance is a regional economic development consortium that promotes the ten county members, including Mecklenburg, to businesses and industries looking to relocate to Southside Virginia.

» Supervisors also approved several increases to the County’s planning and zoning fees. County Administrator Wayne Carter said the last time planning fees were increased was in 2006, and zoning fees were last increased in the 1990s.

Zoning Administrator Eddie Harris said it costs his office at least $50 to inspect a building but the current fee is only $15.

Starting July 1, planning and zoning fees will be:

Permit fees $50, inspection fees $50, zoning application fees $30 and the square foot costs for construction permits will be $0.12 per square foot.

» VDOT Residency Manager Tommy Johnson notified supervisors that as of Friday, June 7, 95 percent of the primary roads in Mecklenburg County had been mowed and he expected mowing work on the secondary roads to wrap up within the next two weeks, weather permitting.

» Supervisors accepted the recommendations of the County Planning Commission to allow two cell tower projects to move forward in the permitting process. The towers will be located on Highway 15N just north of Prestwould and on Sandy Fork Farm Road in Buffalo Junction. Both areas, according to Carter, have very poor cellular reception. These 275-foot tall towers should help address that problem.

» Supervisor Andy Hargrove was appointed to replace Gregg Gordon on the Lake Country Regional Airport Commission, and Hilda Puryear and Jane Lipscomb were both reappointed to the Library Board.

» Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols described how a group of minority churches are providing camp experiences this summer for students whose family finances often preclude the kids from these opportunities.

The Southside Youth Development Corporation received a grant which they are using to operate one-week camp experiences for middle school students to explore various career opportunities that will be open to them through the six career center programs offered to high school students in Mecklenburg County.

The six career centers are focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), advanced technology, environmental sciences, health and human services, law and leadership and international business and culture.

The career center concept was developed by Nichols to help prepare students for the world beyond high school, whether it be through post-secondary education or work in a trade or profession that does not require a four-year college degree.

The camp, which is being held this year at Bluestone High School, is free to the students.

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