Can Hemp Make a Comeback in Virginia?

Oct 1, 2018

For the first time in decades, a new state law makes it legal to buy and process industrial hemp in Virginia.  A company in the Shenandoah Valley hopes to be the first to do just that.  WMRA's Andrew Jenner reports.

[Fade in I-81 traffic & pickup pulling in]

In the Mount Jackson Industrial Park, just off I-81, a white pickup pulls into a lonely parking lot beside a vacant warehouse that looks like a giant metal shoebox. At the wheel is a guy with big plans for all 40,000 square feet of it.

SAM GRANT: My name is Sam Grant. I’m the managing partner of Virginia Hemp Company. Virginia Hemp is in the process of buying this building to open the first hemp manufacturing facility in the state of Virginia.

At least in the modern era. As collateral damage in the drug war, industrial hemp hasn’t been grown commercially in the country for decades. State and federal law has been changing quickly, though, as policymakers recognize that while industrial hemp won’t get you high, it will do a lot of other stuff.

GRANT: We will then in this facility process the stalks of that into high-quality hemp fiber for use in a range of things, including high-quality clothing.

That process also yields a valuable byproduct known as hurd [spelled H-U-R-D].

GRANT: It’s a very absorbent material. We have been test marketing some in Virginia as horse bedding, chicken bedding, put it in the cage with your guinea pig.

Industrial hemp has applications in the automotive industry, homebuilding, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, foods and all sorts of other stuff.

GRANT: With somewhere on the order of 40-50,000 different products that can be made from the hemp plant, the opportunities are quite limitless.

In 2015, the Virginia legislature created a pilot program to study industrial hemp production. Glenn Rodes, a farmer in Rockingham County, was the very first licensed to participate.

RODES: We had been growing crops for biodiesel, and there was lots of information around that hemp was this crop that would also provide biofuel, if we could grow it.

Working with researchers at James Madison University, his basic goal was to see if hemp could be grown here with conventional farming equipment.

RODES: We used our grain drill and our combine. We wanted to plant a big enough crop to make it worth getting out the equipment to do it, but a small enough crop that if it was a failure, it wouldn’t be a disaster.

He’s grown about 10 acres, disaster-free, for each of the past three years.

RODES: It’s been a really good experience. I’m excited about it, and I think it will be an opportunity when the market opens up.

That’s where the Virginia Hemp Company comes in. Thanks to new state law that took effect this summer, it can now buy and process hemp grown by farmers such as Rodes. It says hemp can be far more lucrative than traditional commodities, and hopes to source 2,500 acres of it next year. But that won’t be without its challenges.

BOBBY CLARK: No matter what the profit potential, we have never grown hemp in the Valley in anyone’s memory, so nobody knows how to grow hemp. We don’t have herbicides, insecticides or fungicides labeled for hemp anywhere in the United States. We don’t know anything about the varieties to grow. So there is such little knowledge about how to do this that we’re starting out very much in a beginning stage.

Bobby Clark is an extension agent in Shenandoah County. He can only recall a few times during his 30-year career working with farmers in Virginia and North Carolina when a brand new product like hemp has come along, potentially offering brand new opportunity.

CLARK: Canola. Rabbits. Ostrich production. Sunflowers for sunflower oil. It’s happened a few times, but this is an extremely rare thing.

And their track record isn’t great.

CLARK: The sunflower thing never got off the ground. Rabbits never got off the ground. Ostriches kind of came and went. And canola did not work out in the Virginias or Carolinas the way they wanted it to.

The challenge for farmers is one of risk versus reward. Despite the successful pilot program experiences of farmers like Rodes, all the unknowns about growing hemp here make it risky, and therefore, not for everyone. The Virginia Hemp Company, though, is bullish about hemp’s long-term prospects in the Shenandoah Valley. Here’s Grant again:

GRANT: We think the financial opportunities and the almost unlimited growth of hemp as an industrial product will get us there.

[Fade in meeting sounds]

Last week, he spoke about his plans at a meeting in Mount Jackson, hoping to recruit farmers to the cause. Sam Stephens, one of the dozens who attended, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

SAM STEPHENS: I would be interested in trying this, but they want to do 30 acres and I’m not quite ready to do that much at one time at the beginning. There’s too much risk, too much ground to tie up doing it all at one shot, and I would just like to see a little more done first.

Rodes, who also spoke at the meeting, thinks it’ll all work out eventually.

RODES: I believe the crop has a great future. It had a great past here in the Valley. It was some of the finest hemp grown in the world. I think this will add another crop with the potential to make some pretty good money.

It’s too early to know yet, if things will turn out that way. But at very least, Rodes says, it’s exciting to try something new.

RODES: There are few times in your life where you can at the beginning of an industry. You won’t always make money early, but at least you learn, and it’s been a lot of fun.