Industrial hemp production faces challenges after legalization

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ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — The 2018 Farm Bill legalized growing industrial hemp across the United States, which means this is the first season for farmers to harvest a legal crop.

Although it is legal to grow industrial hemp, farmers have to re-learn the process of growing it because it was illegal for so long.

James Madison University has researched growing hemp for four years, and although it is legal now, researchers says there is still a lot of work that must be done.

Dr. Samuel Morton, an associate professor of engineering at James Madison University, said farmers in Virginia started growing hemp in the colonial times, but it has been illegal for so long that the process of growing it must be re-learned.

Historically, hemp was one of the earliest grown crops in our area, even planted by George Washington, when fibers from the plant were necessary to create rigging for ships.

Historians estimate that by the mid-18th century, Virginia had 12,000 acres cultivated for hemp. But marijuana and hemp were both banned in the 1930s under the Marihuana Tax Act, and remained that way for years, with hemp classified as a schedule one controlled substance due to its nearly identical genetic structure to marijuana.

However, hemp has far less THC than its psychedelic cousin.

Since the Farm Bill passed, hemp and its derived products are now legal on a federal level once again, and it's booming across the country. Uses for hemp include thousands of products, like rope, oils, clothes, fibers similar to plastic, food and more.

A farm in Rockingham County that's been working with James Madison University is now also growing hemp on its own.

Morton said current legislation is not clear with rules for growing hemp and there is not an established market to sell it yet, or much expertise on how to grow or process it.

"I think it's an exciting time. I think there's a lot of opportunities, but there's an awful lot of unanswered questions, and so as we move forward developing industrial hemp in Virginia, it's going to be really important that we communicate with each other," said Morton.

Farmers are working together to collaborate to figure out how to answer some of the questions they have about hemp. The opportunity does allow for farmers to be on a new end of an old industry, one which many hope could be a new cash crop in Virginia.

Local farmers have also told WHSV that the legalization of hemp could benefit the next generation even more.

"We have nephews here on the farm, and I'm hoping that by adding another crop, another way to make money, that it will actually benefit the next generation more than the current generation," farmer Glenn Rodes (who was also part of the JMU hemp research project) said.

Across the mountain in West Virginia, the number of licenses issued to farmers to grow hemp has increased from 46 last year to 158 this year, and acreage for hemp has jumped from 155 acres to 1,532 acres.