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Opinion

Believe the hype?

SoVaNow.com / April 17, 2019
Two headlines this week that maybe belong together?

“Advocates hoped census would find diversity in agriculture. It found old white people” — The Washington Post, on the release of the 2017 Census of Agriculture

“Central American Farmers Head to the U.S., Fleeing Climate Change” — New York Times

To pick up on the topic of America’s graying cohort of farmers: When (not if) we get around to upgrading the high school, a priority ought to be improving the facilities for agricultural education. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, but one prediction we can make is that a strong ag-related investment at Halifax County High School will pay dividends for generations to come.

This said, the findings of the 2017 USDA Census (referred to above) highlight the considerable challenge of replenishing America’s (and Southside Virginia’s) declining ranks of farm and timber producers. Contrary to assertions that the U.S. is “full,” there are many rural communities, ours included, that will need an inflow of skilled farm laborers and operators to fill a void that only promises to grow over time. We ought to keep immigration in mind as a potential part of the solution to this industry-wide problem.

But let’s focus today on the other end of the farmer supply-and-demand equation: the demand part, in which producers can grow a crop that consumers will beat down the doors to buy. This doesn’t aspply to tobacco, as should be clear by now: domestic sales are unlikely to ever again rise significantly, if at all, barring some breakthrough use of the golden leaf as something other than a carcinogen product. Meanwhile, noted farm analyst Bob Dylan called the trend in international markets long ago: the times, they are a’changin’. Foreign competition for domestic leaf growers is getting tougher and smarter every day, and the Trump Administration’s face-plant trade policies aren’t helping as international customers turn elsewhere for their farm goods.

It’s not just tobacco, by the way. Did you see the news in late December of particular interest to our local soybean growers? Here’s the Reuters’ headline (Dec. 24): “China imports zero U.S. soybeans in November for first time since trade war started.” Two paragraphs into the Reuters story, we got this: “China has leaned on Brazilian imports to replace the U.S. cargoes, customs data showed on Monday.” Uh-oh.

Which leads us to a hot topic in local farm circles: industrial hemp. Given the long list of alternative crops to tobacco that have risen up and disappeared over time, like a High Plains Drifter riding off into the sunset on a rented mule, it’s easy to give in to skepticism that there’s more hype to hemp than actual heft. (Sorry.) But what do I know? The more one hears, the more believable the hemp-as-tobacco-replacement story becomes: the plant truly has a multitude of uses, many of them in America’s one sure-fire growth industry — health and beauty products — and the shift in production from one crop to the other seems doable, if maybe a little tricky. (To the uneducated eye, hemp looks just like marijuana, so … um … there are some issues to work through before large-scale cultivation can start.)

Yet it’s the similarities between the two crops that offer the best reason to think that Southside Virginia (really, any historical-leaf growing area) is well-positioned to capitalize on a hemp boom. Much of the infrastructure is already in place. So is a general grower knowledge base. As a rule, people do better when they get to go with what they know. As such, building up the local ag economy through hemp farming is a much better bet than expecting Southside Virginia to refashion itself as a technology hub, Microsoft’s presence notwithstanding.

The other big advantage for the area is that the hemp industry is still in its relative infancy. Last year’s Farm Bill laid the groundwork for large-scale production, and many of the regulations await implementation, so everyone is (more or less) getting off to a fresh start. While Virginia hasn’t exactly been an early adopter state for hemp farming, we’re not so far off the pace that we can’t claim a significant share of the industry for ourselves. For that reason, it was heartening to see that the Community Strategic Plan — the subject of our front page lead story today — allowed some room for a discussion of building a hemp processing plant in the county. You can’t judge a proposal until you see the details, but the inclusion of hemp in this big overview of the county’s future is welcome.

Arguably, the last time there was this much interest and excitement over a tobacco alternative in the region was the great ethanol boom of the early aughts — and we all see how that turned out. But whereas ethanol never really made much sense (Southside was never going to beat Iowa or Nebraska at that game), hemp is enough of a niche crop with real market potential to support a strong push to gain an industry foothold. Early investments in opportunities that make sense for a given region are hard to beat. Just to cite an example, one would never figure that a left-leaning state like Connecticut would be a logical place to put a good portion of the nation’s gun industry, except when one realizes that it all goes back to Colonial times when the state housed the weapons foundries that enabled America’s birth. Could hemp be the foundation for a different kind of revolution — this one taking place on the farm? It behooves us to find out.



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