Research could lead to resurgence of industrial hemp in Va.

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Industrial hemp may not be the next miracle crop for Virginia farmers, but it has potential for providing energy, feed and pharmaceutical ingredients. 

“I think hemp has a lot of potential in the state, to be used for fiber or to be used for grain or even to be used for pharmaceuticals,” said Dr. John Fike, an associate professor of crop and soil environmental science who is conducting hemp research at several of Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Centers. “But it’s one thing to be able to grow it; it’s another thing to be able to sell this crop. We really don’t have well-developed markets that can take this crop.” 

Virginia Tech, James Madison University, the University of Virginia and Virginia State University are conducting research on how to grow hemp, investigating what inputs are required to grow it and finding different uses for the crop. 

Dr. Michael Renfroe, a JMU biology professor, said the university’s research has focused on planting and harvesting hemp with conventional agricultural equipment. Additionally, the school has studied the effects of fertilizer on the crop. “We also want to know, ‘Can we take the oil from this?’” Renfroe said.

Glenn Rodes, who co-owns and operates his family’s Riverhill Farms in Rockingham County, has found that the answer is ‘Yes’. He grew 10 acres of industrial hemp for JMU and, after harvesting a decent crop, was able to crush the seed for oil to convert into biodiesel to power his farm equipment. 

“I’ve always had an interest in alternative crops,” said Rodes, who also grows canola and turns it into biodiesel. “Hemp is another crop that has a great potential as an energy crop.” 

Fike said converting hemp to biodiesel seems to be the most widely accepted use right now. “The seed has a fairly high level of oil, and there are some that are interested in pressing that oil and turning it into biodiesel so you could have an on-farm energy supply. And then you could feed the residual material to your livestock.” 

From a nutritional standpoint, hemp seeds have higher omega fatty acid content than other grains, so there “may be a number of uses for human nutrition where hemp could be applied,” Fike said. 

Hemp is not new. It was grown in Virginia in the 1700s, according to Rodes. “It was grown here in the Valley. So we’re just bringing back an old crop and trying new things with it.” 

But because it’s a re-emerging crop, technology has changed, and growers need to adapt to the times. 
“All the infrastructure that was used for hemp production … it’s pretty much gone away or is in a museum somewhere,” Fike said. “So we need to develop systems, whether it’s harvest or processing or logistics systems, that will allow us to get this crop to market.” 

Other obstacles are a lack of available seed and state and federal restrictions governing hemp production. 
“Because of restrictions on research by federal and state law, we can only use on site what we produce,” Renfroe said.

Differences between hemp and marijuana

Industrial hemp and marijuana are both forms of the cannabis plant; they’ve just been developed for different uses.

Each contain cannabinoids, which are unique compounds found in the plant. Marijuana contains THC, a psychoactive chemical; hemp does not. “That is the distinction” between them, explained Dr. John Fike, an associate professor of crop and soil environmental science at Virginia Tech.

Hemp and marijuana plants contain another cannabinoid called CBD. Hemp produces more CBD than marijuana. Ironically, CBD acts to reduce the psychoactive effects of THC.

Virginia law approves hemp research 

A section of the federal Agricultural Act of 2014 allowed an institute of higher education or a state department of agriculture to grow or cultivate industrial hemp if the hemp didn’t have a THC concentration of more than .3 percent.

Subsequently, a section in the Code of Virginia was added in 2015 authorizing the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services to establish and oversee an industrial hemp research program. In early 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law an industrial hemp rule that requires the ag commissioner to establish a licensing program for people who want to grow industrial hemp for a college’s research. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a proposal for colleges interested in conducting industrial hemp research, and agreements were signed with JMU, VSU and Virginia Tech.

Until federal law is amended, no one will be able to grow industrial hemp except for educational research. Rockingham County grower Glenn Rodes said further changes in the federal law “will open up a lot of opportunities for other farmers to grow hemp. I would love to plant hemp as a commercial crop.”

How big is hemp?

According to the Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade association, U.S. retail sales in 2015 of products made with hemp grown overseas totaled $573 million. Those products included food, nutritional supplements, personal care products, textiles, auto parts and paper construction materials.

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