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Hemp: Real deal or flash in pan?

SoVaNow.com / March 21, 2019
Is industrial hemp the answer to Southside Virginia’s farming challenges?

During a two-day conference in Danville in February, growers across the area listened as speakers described the seemingly magical versatility of hemp, which until the passage of the federal Farm Bill in December was illegal to grow in most states.

The Farm Bill, signed by President Trump in December, treats hemp and its derivatives — hemp extracts, and cannabinoids derived from hemp — as agricultural commodities and removed them from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly and sent to Governor Northam in February aligns Virginia law with the provisions of the Farm Bill by amending the definitions of cannabidiol oil, marijuana, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to limit THC content — the active ingredient in marijuana — to no more than 0.3 percent, below any drug-inducing effects. Governor Ralph Northam has until March 26 to sign or veto the legislation.

Regulations related to the state law will not be written until after the bill is signed by the governor.

Hemp — cannabis sativa — is said to ease joint pain, control seizures, remove toxins from the soil, and be more durable than concrete and stronger than traditional plywood. It can be woven into fiber for clothing or industrial textiles, it has anti-bacterial qualities, and is a rich source of micronutrients, protein and fatty acids that are essential to the human diet.

Its growing season is like that of tobacco and it can thrive in well-tilled clay soils. It also requires less chemical spraying than products currently grown in Southside Virginia, including cotton, soy, corn and wheat, and less water to grow, thereby reducing soil degradation. Farmers from states where growing hemp has been legal for some time — and who spoke at the Hemp Summit in Danville — claim farmers can earn three to four times more per acre with hemp than with traditional crops.

Why, then, is every farmer in the area not jumping on the hemp bandwagon?

The answer is not as simple as it seems. Some farmers worry about the regulations that are yet to be developed around the plant, while others question whether a market exists for the plant and its byproducts. There are some that cannot get past the fact that industrial hemp is the same plant as marijuana, but without the same level of THC — the drug found in pot that gets the smoker high.

Jeff Platzke and his brother-in-law, Chad Nehme, owners of Horizon Hemp and Agriculture in Boydton, believe that farmers’ reticence to growing hemp stems from a lack of understanding about the plant and the lack of mechanical equipment available to harvest the crop.

They say that growing industrial hemp requires a great deal of manual labor, since existing farm equipment cannot be used to harvest the flowers and seeds needed in hemp and CBD oil production. The stalks of the plant “are too stringy” to be harvested with traditional combines. The fibers clog the machinery.

Sterling Wilkinson, who helps run the family farm in Baskerville with his father William “Billy” Wilkinson, where they grow soy and tobacco, is cautiously optimistic that some existing farm equipment and infrastructure — for cultivating, planting and drying tobacco — is transferable to the production of hemp. He agrees that harvesting will have to be done by hand, for now, but does not see the need for manual labor as a deterrent to growing the crop.

He believes farmers who are taking “a wait and see attitude” are more concerned about the lack of viable markets for hemp and the fact that Virginia has yet to develop a regulatory scheme for the crop. Still, he sees hemp farming as a possible salvation for farmers who are being forced to diversify because of unstable markets for tobacco and other agricultural mainstays and punishing seasonal conditions.

While Wilkinson questions whether there is a large enough market to justify large-scale hemp production in Mecklenburg County, Nehme and Platkze say that demand for their crop has skyrocketed to the point that they are hiring growers to help with production of clones and are looking for a nursery manager. They are producing starter hemp plants for growers around the southeastern United States and ship hundreds and sometimes thousands of plants weekly.

When asked how best to help farmers in Southside Virginia who don’t know what to do with hemp production, Gregg Gordon, owner of Aarons Creek Nursey in Buffalo Junction, suggested local farmers form a cooperative, in which they can pool resources to buy services such as marketing.

Gordon believes the hemp market already exists and that local farmers, particularly the small farmer, need to get a foothold in the industry “before the big boys get involved” —referring to major tobacco companies such as Richmond-based Altria.

The tobacco giants, for now, appear to be sitting on the sidelines but at the same time there is a growing demand for hemp. In 2017 hemp imports to the United States reached over $60 million, most of which came from Canada.

In December, CNN Business reported that Altria purchased a 45 percent stake in a Canadian cannabis company, Cronos Group, for $1.8 billion. Altria holds an option to increase its interest to 55 percent over the next five years.

Gordon also sees the benefit of adding hemp to the rotation of crops grown here in Southside Virginia. He said he started looking into hemp production to extend the time his greenhouses are in production.

Aaron’s Creek is primarily a grower of annuals. By April or May each year, the company’s more than six-acres of greenhouses are empty. The growing season for industrial hemp runs from late spring until early fall. Hemp production would be finished by the time Gordon said he needs the greenhouses again for the annuals.

So far, both Horizon Hemp and Aaron’s Creek are producing their plants in greenhouses, which provides a more controlled environment. Since both operations are focused on cultivating starter plants to be sold to other growers, Nehme and Gordon expect they will continue using greenhouses to grow their crops.

Gordon says there’s another reason he will continue to grow hemp in greenhouses as opposed to the field. The plants that he and Horizon Hemp are growing will be used to produce CBD oil. That requires the plants to be female since male plants do not produce the flowers from which CBD is derived.

Hemp planted in the field could become cross-pollinated with male plants, thereby rendering the plant useless for CBD extraction purposes.

Wilkinson said he will most likely grow hemp in the field, as well as in greenhouses, which means he can grow both a tall row crop for fiber out in the field and seeds or a short bushy plant for the flowers and CBD inside his greenhouses, if he chooses.

Once farmers begin growing hemp, Wilkinson believes they will have no problem producing quality plants. He would like to see every county official — including members of the Board of Supervisors — support not just the farmers, but businesses looking to grow or produce valued-added products using hemp.

Locally, few farmers have jumped on the hemp bandwagon in part due to looming regulatory issues — the most significant being the type of test Virginia will mandate to determine the THC levels in locally grown plants. Industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC.

To ensure that regulators focus on helping farmers develop salable hemp, Gordon said he would like to see Virginia form a committee, comprised of regulators, farmers and scientists, to develop the rules that will attach to growing and selling hemp and hemp related products. He says the group should apply a commonsense approach; look at legislation and rules in other states to make sure the regulatory scheme being proposed makes sense for the crop on an agronomic level and on a regulatory level.

Right now, the buzzword in the hemp industry is CBD, but hemp is so much more. It is this diversity that has some farmers ready to hail hemp as the tobacco of the 21st century, despite the risks, uncertainty of economic payoff, and lack of direction from regulators. Even so, they have hope that it will be a huge economic boost for the area and its farmers.

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