Hemp takes hold in region

Ricky and Lorrie Bryant raised this crop of hemp on their Barboursville property this summer. 

Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, it’s now legal to grow industrial hemp across the U.S., and several Orange County farmers are taking advantage of the change in the law.

Ricky and Lorrie Bryant, owners of Bryant Landscape and Nursery in Barboursville, decided to apply their expertise in growing annuals and perennial to hemp, a work-intensive but exceedingly versatile crop.

After applying for and getting a permit from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the Bryants planted four acres of hemp on June 18 and harvested the crop last weekend. They’re now in the process of drying the plants, which are five to six feet tall.

“The crop’s good,” Ricky Bryant said. “Hopefully, the weather will hold out for us to get it dried where we can get it in presentable form for sale.”

In case you’re wondering, an industrial hemp permit is not a license to grow “weed.” Hemp is not the same as marijuana, though both are forms of cannabis.

The cannabidiol (CBD) compound found in hemp is used to make a wide variety of lotions, creams, salves, pills and other products said to have medicinal effects. Proponents say CBD oil can ease muscle aches, chronic pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety, among other problems.

Hemp is an ancient plant with a myriad of practical applications that traveled with it from the Old World to the New. When Virginia was a colony, settlers used it to make sailcloth and rope, among other much-needed supplies. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington reportedly grew hemp. (And industrial hemp was grown this year at James Madison’s Montpelier.)

Growing hemp was outlawed in the 1930s when it was lumped together with marijuana and considered dangerous. During World War II, however, it was briefly legal to grow it as a source of materials needed for the war effort. Last year’s farm bill brought it back once again, and numbers supplied by the VDACS indicate state farmers and entrepreneurs are open to trying it out.

State agriculture department director of communications Elaine Lidholm said that as of Sept. 27, VDACS had issued 1,058 industrial hemp grower registrations, 216 industrial hemp processor registrations and 87 industrial hemp dealer registrations.

Lidholm added that based on reports from nearly 60% of the state’s registered hemp growers, more than 1,900 acres of hemp were planted during the current growing season.

“If you’ve got a lazy bone in your body …”

Growing hemp is hard work and requires a great deal of decision-making up front. Bryant said he planted his “boutique crop” beneath plastic and irrigated it with a drip line running off his well. He planted “feminized” seeds and clones, which ensured he would get plenty of unpollinated hemp flowers, not a field full of seeds.

To succeed in raising hemp, Bryant said, “Don’t be scared of hard work. Basically, your final product is what you put into it. If you’ve got a lazy bone in your body, don’t try to grow hemp.”

Barbara Miller of Somerset came to the same conclusions during the process of raising 20 acres of hemp at a farm she recently purchased in Madison County.

Miller lined up a contract with a Kentucky hemp processor before planting her crop at the property she has re-named Crescere Farm (Italian for “to grow”) and used seeds the company supplied.

Uncooperative weather required replanting—and that was no easy task, with 14,000 seeds per acre. Miller said she spent the summer hoeing the fields to eliminate weeds along with pesky male hemp plants that pollinate the flowers on the female plants.

“One male can pollinate an acre. It’s basically impossible to stay ahead of it,” she said.

Pollinating is fine if you’re looking to grow seeds, but that’s not what Miller was after.

She was aiming for large quantities of hemp flowers that could be used to make CBD oil. But with male plants popping up all over the place, she ended up with “primarily a seed crop” during her inaugural year of hemp production. Based on what she heard from numerous other hemp farmers, her experience was typical during a year when everybody was learning by trial and error.

Fortunately, the Kentucky company was still on board. She said the message she received was, “Send us everything you’ve got.”

On a recent afternoon, Miller and her estate manager, Justin Mays, supervised the last stages of the hemp harvest. Several workers pulled hemp plants one by one out of a large metal container and whacked the towering plants against the sides of trash barrels. (The technical term is “bucking”—a hemp-specific term for shucking—and yes, you can buy machines to do this chore.)

Some of the bio mass, as the plant material is called, landed on a tarp the crew would later dump into containers to ship to Kentucky.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an easy crop to grow. I learned my lesson this summer,” said Miller, effervescent and smiling, despite the abundant challenges of the massive project.

“A really amazing plant”

The New York City native, a farmer, entrepreneur and self-anointed “hempress,” is full of enthusiasm for hemp, which she calls “a really amazing, wonderful plant.”

She points out that medicinal products containing CBD oil are being used to treat serious medical conditions, including multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, and ease the suffering of cancer patients. She said the calming and analgesic effects of CBD could help people struggling to break opioid addictions: “Maybe CBD will be enough for them.”

Miller is equally sold on the value of hemp fiber. She said hemp can be grown in three months and then used to make paper—a much speedier process than planting and harvesting trees for the same purpose. She said it also can be used to make many items currently made of plastic.

Next year, she said she plans to use feminized seeds, seedlings and possibly some cloned plants. This will cost more up front but will reduce the number of male plants that caused havoc this time around. 

Growing hemp had been on her radar for some time, because she has long believed in the plant’s utility.                                                         

“As soon as the Farm Bill legalized [growing it], I said I’m in all the way. It fills me with so much joy, I can’t even tell you. I’m really proud of all I’ve been able to accomplish this year,” she said.

Goodbye, soybeans; hello, hemp

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Andrew Oliver devoted 80 acres to raising hemp. He said he took some soybeans out of his crop rotation to invest in the experimental crop.

Oliver plans to harvest his crop in a month. Until then, he is reluctant to offer specifics on how things have been going or what kind of use his hemp will be put toward.

Asked whether he plans to grow it again next year, Oliver responded cryptically but with a note of optimism in his voice: “Possibly.”

Andy Hutchison, president of the Orange County Farm Bureau, cautioned that raising hemp is “a lot of work and a lot of risk.”

He said he hasn’t investigated growing it himself but has followed what local hemp farmers are doing.

Noting there are plenty of “unknowns” and “unforeseens” in rasing hemp, he said he thinks hemp farmers would do well to start small.

“Grow your way into it and learn what it’s going to take have a successful crop,” he advised.

At Crescere Farm, Miller dug her hands into a barrel of hemp and grinned. Finishing the summer’s work was clearly a success in itself. As she inhaled the fragrant aroma of her harvest, she said to her it smelled something like oregano and was relaxing.

In Barboursville, Ricky Bryant was a little more—well, blunt:

“It smells like pot!”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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