By ANGELA H. HILL
Judging by the high turnout for the area’s first hemp conference, Franklin County farmers are exploring the pros and cons of a centuries-old crop with new market appeal: hemp.
About 80 people gathered April 2 at The Franklin Center in Rocky Mount for the conference, which was organized by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Offices of Patrick and Franklin counties. Topics included legal regulations and registration, grower experiences and production.
Until this past December, hemp could be grown in Virginia only for research purposes. Virginia Tech, James Madison University, University of Virginia and Virginia State University have all maintained research plots; along with a handful of private growers who had the proper licensing.
With President Trump’s signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, federal hemp restrictions were lifted and hemp was defined as separate from marijuana. Gov. Northam signed legislation in March that brought the state code in line with federal regulations on hemp cultivation in Virginia.
One clearly defined point in all legislation, however, is that while hemp and marijuana are both the cannabis sativa plant, hemp must stay at 0.3 percent or lower TCH, the psycho-active compound tetrahydrocannabinol responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effect. Plots that test higher than 0.3 percent will be destroyed.
Hemp is cultivated for its grain, fiber and flowers; and can be grown for stalk or seed used in textiles, food, paper, body care products, plastics and building materials. The flowers can be grown for cannabidoil, or CBD, which is used in nutraceutical supplements.
Erin Williams with VDACS’ office of policy planning and research has been coordinating hemp research and regulations for about 5 years. She explained the legal developments and licensing requirements to conference attendees.
VDACS is in charge of registering hemp growers and processors, she explained. There is no application deadline for registrations, which are available at vdacs.virginia.gov. Also, all agents – meaning anyone who works with or transports hemp – are covered by the grower’s registration. The application fee is $50.
The registration applications take about 75 days to process, and Williams recommends those applying skip the section about research plans because recent legislation eliminated the research requirement. There is no maximum or minimum required acreage, she added, so small test plots are OK.
While there is also no fencing requirement, Williams said she does recommend farmers give careful consideration to where they plant hemp.
“It’s a good idea to keep them off the main roads,” Williams added. “Sometimes it looks similar to marijuana and intrigues passers-by so be mindful of where you grow it.”
VDACS does not have seed to distribute, she said, and seeds can be sold only to those who are registered. The VDACS’ website has a Grower and Processor Registration Guide that outlines what can be sold and to whom.
The federal and state legislation also created a hemp dealer registration that’s similar to the guidelines governing the tobacco industry. Williams said individuals can get all three registrations.
Additional regulations require that hemp is processed by a registered processor, so a grower cannot sell hemp micro-greens or flowers to the general public. The public can possess hemp products that contain less than 0.3 percent THC.
John Fike, associate professor of crop and soil environmental science at Virginia Tech, served as the conference’s next speaker, diving into hemp mythology and growing guidelines. For example, the Founding Fathers did not smoke hemp, and the U.S. Constitution was not written on hemp paper, he said.
“These are really silly kinds of things but they’ve been used to promote it,” Fike said. Hemp was, however, important for making canvas for the British Navy and therefore grown by American Colonists.
Fike concluded by advising potential growers to not buy into another myth: that hemp grows well in poor soil.
“If hemp is grown in marginal soil, you will grow a marginal crop,” he said. Franklin County faces the challenge of red clay, but soil condition is vital to a successful crop.
The conference culminated in a panel discussion featuring Margaret Collins of Collins Farm, HempEDU, and Central Southside Hemp Processors; Travis Wagoner of Virginia Cultivars LLC; Kerry McCormick and Jennifer Horrigan with TerraFarma CBD; and an entomology PhD student from Virginia Tech.
The panel fielded questions on insects and other pests, the regulation that no pesticides can be sprayed on hemp, the importance of heavy metal testing, cultivars that withstand humidity, markets for hemp products, whether the FDA will begin regulating CBD oil, the importance of organic production and communication with local law enforcement.
Collins started out growing research plots with Virginia State University, focusing on 400 acres of 14 varieties grown for grain and fiber. This year, her farm will branch out into growing for flowers for CBD oil. Her advice is to start small.
“It’s been a very interesting ride so far,” Collins said. “I would say to you, don’t do anything you can’t afford to lose. That would be my best advice.”
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