CHRISTIANSBURG — Despite the buzz around industrial hemp, which Virginians can now grow commercially for the first time in decades, many farmers are exercising caution, choosing to start small. Matt Hagan is not among them.
Hagan, a racecar driver and cattle farmer, is the owner of truharvest farms in Christiansburg. He has more of a go big or go home mentality — his 85-acre operation is believed to be among the largest in the state.
“Everybody’s like, well, let’s just do an acre, let’s do 2 acres. I was like well, you can’t lose all your money doing just an acre or two. Let’s do enough to lose all of our money,” Hagan said with a laugh.
More seriously, Hagan acknowledges he was fortunate to have the capital to launch an operation of this scale. It’s a big investment, he said, and a big risk. Not to mention, a lot of hard work.
“The idea of going out here and throwing some seeds in the ground and getting rich went away really quickly,” Hagan said.
Still, he wanted to give the crop a try. As do many others. At the start of July, more than 800 growers had registered with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. If the farmers plant what they’ve told the agency they intend to, it will amount to more than 8,500 acres of hemp this growing season, said Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for VDACS.
Licensees include not only farmers looking to diversify and add revenue streams, Lidholm said, but also first-time farmers drawn specifically to hemp.
“We know it’s creating a lot of interest, we know that hopefully it will help farmers add that extra revenue stream,” she said.
But Lidholm said it’s much too soon to assess hemp’s success. The prayers of struggling farmers have no definitive answer.
“It certainly appears to have some possibilities for Virginia agriculture,” she said. “But check back in a year or two.”
Changes to law paved way
Hemp has been outlawed in the United States for decades, along with all forms of cannabis. It is a variety of cannabis sativa, as is marijuana, but there’s a key difference between the two: hemp won’t get you high. Industrial hemp is defined as a plant with up to 0.3% THC, the psychoactive property in marijuana.
Hemp can be used for a variety of products, from textiles and insulation to biodiesel. But cannabidiol, or CBD, products are perhaps generating the most interest. Advocates say CBD has a variety of health benefits, but scientific research is limited.
Progress toward legalization of hemp was made five years ago, when federal law was changed to allow cultivation of hemp for research purposes. Virginia law was amended to implement such a program in 2015. But advocates’ big win came with the passage of the 2018 farm bill, when hemp was legalized in all 50 states and removed from the federal list of controlled substances.
In March , Virginia adopted legislation to conform with the farm bill, abolishing the research program and the requirement that all growers act exclusively within it. The law went into effect immediately, rather than July 1, so growers wouldn’t miss this season. Now, anyone with a VDACS-issued license can grow hemp for commercial purposes.
Still, there are plenty of regulations. For example, if the THC level in a farmer’s hemp tests above a state-imposed threshold, the crop must be destroyed.
And the regulations are still in flux. Until last week, Virginia had prohibited the processing of products containing a hemp-derived extract, including CBD oil, intended for human consumption. When processors were notified of this stance in May, it came as a surprise to some. Many growers made arrangements to send their product out of state for processing.
But on Monday VDACS Commissioner Jewel Bronaugh sent a letter to registered processors indicating the agency would treat hemp-derived extracts intended for human consumption as approved food additives and allow processors to manufacture them, although a food safety inspection would be required. The agency’s food safety program is developing guidelines for processors.
Erin Williams, a senior policy analyst with VDACS, said a number of factors prompted the change in policy: Processors were frustrated, such products were already on the market in Virginia and the lack of oversight created uncertainty for consumers about what they were purchasing.
“In the absence of federal oversight, the Northam administration has provided a path for Virginia to have some oversight over the production of the extracts,” Williams said.
It’s unclear whether more Virginia-grown hemp will be processed in the state this year as a result of the policy change.
Even before processors were notified of the now-rescinded restrictions, Williams said, many growers indicated they planned to sell their product to processors out of state.
She said this could be attributed to the lack of infrastructure for the crop in Virginia, given commercial hemp production was approved by the General Assembly just months ago.
Data still out on hemp farming , experts say
Although hundreds of farmers have decided to take a chance on the crop, experts say there’s still much to learn about hemp and how best to grow it in Virginia.
Kelli Scott, a cooperative extension agent in Montgomery County, said developing sound data, with practices applicable and replicable throughout the region, can take several years. And because the crop cycle typically runs June to October, there’s only one growing season a year for researchers to study. Scott said the team at Virginia Tech has been studying the hemp flower only since 2017.
“So we’ve got some on-farm data, but we don’t have tried-and-true practices at this point in time,” Scott said.
Getting started with hemp can be difficult from a financial perspective, Scott said, as neither commercial lines of credit nor crop insurance are available to hemp growers.
Even if farmers clear that hurdle, there are many more in the growing process. Perhaps the largest is the need to keep THC levels in check.
John Fike, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who has studied hemp, said farmers can likely avoid this by testing the plant’s THC levels along the way, harvesting when it nears the limit. But at the same time, farmers want to maximize the plant’s CBD concentration. Harvesting early could threaten that. It’s a delicate balance for farmers.
In Fike’s opinion, the burden of regulating a product’s THC concentration should be passed on to the processor, rather than the farmer. He argues processors have more control than farmers, whose crop will be affected by weather and other unforeseen factors.
Fike also notes the 0.3% THC level that defines industrial hemp is “just an arbitrary, man-made human construction,” — he said it’s not based on what level of the cannabinoid might cause a psychotropic effect.
Getting their feet wet
Tim Belcher, owner of Rolling Meadows Farms in Franklin County, was an early adopter of hemp. He got a license last year as a participant in the research program.
This year, in addition to growing his own hemp, Belcher is helping other farmers get started with the crop by selling clones — essentially baby plants. They are an alternative to starting with seeds, which Belcher described as more risky.
“As soon as I saw the hemp thing pass, I said well right here is a good opportunity, me having my feet already wet and already knowing how to make clones from being in the greenhouse industry with other plants,” Belcher said.
The longtime farmer — Belcher has been a vendor at the Roanoke City Market for decades — said he was drawn to hemp by CBD’s popularity. Belcher said he’s a big believer in its health benefits.
He’s hopeful hemp will give Virginia’s agriculture industry a boost.
“I think it’s going to be the savior for all of the tobacco farmers and a lot of other farmers who have been struggling,” Belcher said.
But he realizes high startup costs will keep some folks out of it. Many are starting small not just to minimize risk, but also to minimize costs. Belcher said prices for clones can run anywhere from $3 a plant, the lowest he’s seen, to $12 apiece. At 1,500 plants per acre, Belcher said, that adds up quickly.
Belcher plans to harvest 8 acres. His hemp will be processed out of state, through a co-op he joined.
Keith Jackson of Henry County is president of that co-op board. They’re still in the process of getting things finalized, but Jackson said the co-op has upward of 20 members. It secured a contract with a processor in North Carolina.
“It’s just a way for a really small grower to be able to have the buying power and the selling power of a larger grower,” Jackson said.
The co-op gives farmers an opportunity to experiment with the crop on a smaller, safer scale, Jackson said.
“Everybody’s kind of sticking their toe in the water instead of jumping in head first,” he said.
Most of the co-op members are current or former tobacco farmers, Jackson said, including himself. Hemp is a high risk crop, with a potentially high reward.
But that won’t scare off tobacco farmers. Jackson said they’re used to volatile prices, high input costs and labor-intensive work.
The women behind LilyHemp Boutique and Gourmet in Vinton, Susan Cromer and Debbie Custer, have been hemp advocates for years. But Custer, who grows the plant and also has a processing company called Coeus Research, said many growers have far less experience with hemp.
“These people who are coming into it and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars have been into it for two to three months, and it’s very frightening,” she said. “Can it be an economic driver in Virginia? Absolutely. But you need the typical infrastructure for any other agricultural product.”
The women would like to see processing infrastructure established in the state for the plant’s many uses, not just CBD. The same applies to farmers. Custer said there’s little interest in growing for seed in Virginia currently. The CBD craze means it’s all about growing for flower.
Despite the growing interest around hemp, the duo said, there’s still much confusion about the plant, particularly what differentiates it from marijuana. They’ve made educating consumers a priority.
Custer explained the difference this way: “When you look out into a field of grapes, you don’t know if those grapes are being grown for Welch’s grape jelly or for Dom Perignon. They’re both grapes. They look the same as they grow.”
But harvesting and processing differ greatly, she said, not to mention the end product.
In their minds, Cromer said, hemp is the Dom Perignon of the analogy.
Store coming to Floyd
With the rise of the farm-to-table movement, consumers have an increased interest in buying locally grown products. Though the movement has traditionally been associated with food, it could also extend to hemp.
The Buffalo Hemp Co. plans to open a retail store in Floyd featuring CBD products — everything from oils and lotions to pet treats — using locally grown hemp.
The Buffalo Hemp Co. is a joint venture of four Floyd business owners. The partners include Derek Wall, who owns a real estate company; Kerry Underwood and Pat Sisk, owners of Five Mile Mountain Distillery; and Daniel Sowers, owner of On the Water.
Although Wall said he hopes the business will eventually expand to the point that they can hire employees, currently it’s just the four partners, some of whom gained experience growing the plant out west.
The company has approximately 5,000 plants, grown both indoors and outdoors. Wall said Buffalo Hemp is experimenting with different varieties and growing styles to see what works best.
Wall estimated the company had spent about $15,000 on its plants. He acknowledged the business comes with some risk, but Wall said it’s no different from any other entrepreneurial endeavor.
Expectations for the crop are high, motivating many to dive in.
“It’s a gold rush,” Wall said.
One goal of the retail store is to educate people about hemp and CBD, Wall said.
“It’s not about getting people high,” he said. “It’s about getting people relief.”
The store is expected to open late summer, and The Buffalo Hemp Co. plans to be a vendor at FloydFest. Some products are already available, although they don’t use Floyd-grown hemp since the company has yet to harvest its crop. Wall said they hope to one day rely only on their own hemp flower.
Taking the plunge
When Hagan, the owner of truharvest, first became interested in hemp it could still only be grown in Virginia for research purposes. When the farm bill legalized hemp, Hagan quickly decided to give the crop a try and launched truharvest.
John Straw was hired as a head grower. He has experience in specialty crops and drip irrigation, which truharvest is utilizing. But this is Straw’s first time growing hemp; experts aren’t exactly plentiful in Virginia.
“The production model that we’re following resembles what you would use for vegetables. But as far as the care and the nutrition and the harvesting methods, the life cycle of the plant and everything, it’s different,” Straw said. “It’s unlike anything else.”
Within a few months, land formerly home to horses and cattle was transformed into a large-scale hemp operation, with close to 180,000 plants.
“Talk to me this time next year- and I’ll tell you whether to stay away from this stuff or scale up,” Hagan said.
Still, he’s already secured a 400-acre farm in Floyd County for next year — just in case.