Farmers work with JMU to research hemp

ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — Growing hemp has been illegal in the United States since the 1930's, but in 2014, the Farm Bill said it was okay for universities to work with farmers to plant it for research. A farmer in the Valley is working with James Madison University by growing hemp on his field to aid in the research.

The hemp is planted on six acres of land for research.

Growing hemp was made illegal due to its nearly identical genetic structure to marijuana. But while hemp may look similar to its psychedelic cousin, it can't get you high — hemp has much less THC, but is classified as a schedule one controlled substance by the federal government.

Valley Pike Farm learned about the opportunity to participate in the research about a year ago. Matt Lohr, who owns the farm, said they planted their crop a few weeks ago. Lohr said this research could help him and other farmers if hemp becomes legal to grow again.

"I think that being on the ground floor is always exciting when there's a new crop or agricultural enterprise," said Lohr. "I've always been one to enjoy just being on the cutting edge to explore and experiment."

The hemp is planted on six acres of land, which are sectioned off with flags to represent the different kinds of experiments they are doing. Lohr said he believes the legalization hemp, which Congressman Bob Goodlatte supports, would be a boon for many farmers.

"Farming is pretty tough, and a lot of farmers are struggling these days, so to have another opportunity for a crop to grow to be profitable would be very welcome for all producers," said Lohr.

Industrial hemp can be used for thousands of products, like rope, oils, clothes, fibers similar to plastic, food and more. Historically, it was also one of the earliest grown crops in the Shenandoah Valley, serving as a cash crop for many farmers centuries ago, when hemp was necessary to create rigging for ships.

There is a potential for it to be legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Senate has language that would declassify hemp from marijuana, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), removing it from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

However, that will not be decided until the bill goes to conference.

According to Samuel Morton, who is an associate professor of engineering at James Madison University, JMU's research focus is on farmer outreach and practices.

"We've been learning a lot about equipment, about planting techniques, about timing, about how to deal with problems that crop up on a large scale that you wouldn't necessarily see on a small plot," said Morton.

Part of that research was planting the hemp at different times to see how it reacts to Virginia's climate. Both Lohr and Morton said if hemp is legalized this year, their research could go a long way to helping farmers as they start to grow this crop.

The biggest tract of legally grown hemp in Virginia is also right here in the Shenandoah Valley.