Industrial hemp offers economic opportunities for farmers

By KRISTEN RENEAU

The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — In a state where flat land is at a premium, farmers have to focus on maximum productivity per acre, and that often requires innovative thinking.

Now that Gov. Jim Justice has signed a bill legalizing the industrialization of hemp, some farmers believe they will be able to churn out big profits on as little as 10 acres.

The key, they say, is for West Virginia to corner the market. They’re counting on the theory that once the state shows it has a healthy and robust hemp farming community, it will lead to businesses either sprouting up here or relocating to the Mountain State.

Supporters downplay concerns about the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in hemp. Those with concerns note THC is the same chemical compound that’s responsible for the high experienced when using marijuana, which is the same strain of plant.

Hemp, by definition, is a variety of cannabis sativa L that is grown for oilseed and fiber. It is grown in a traditional field model, typically in rows like corn, explained J. Morgan Leach, president of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative.

The Federal Farm Bill, passed in 2014, first allowed farmers to grow industrial hemp for research.

“We’ve actually had it on the books since 2002 since we passed the legislation, so we were ready to implement the program in our state,” Leach said. “That allows us to cultivate it for research and development and marketing purposes.”

While industrial hemp has been legal for research, the bill Justice signed — House Bill 2453 — would change the commissioner’s ability to issue licenses. Previously, the law was modeled after the federal farm bill, which wouldn’t allow third parties to be issued a hemp growing license.

“It expanded the list of people who could cultivate industrial hemp,” Leach said.

Leech said the big push with industrial hemp is to cultivate it as a niche crop, defined as a crop you can grow in 10 acres or less and make a profit.

While nearby states have various hemp laws, he hopes West Virginia’s new law provides a chance to break into the developing market and become a major player.

“West Virginia has some fairly progressive legislation; I would venture to say it’s one of the best written codes and laws to help develop the industry,” Leach said. “Whenever you start a program, there’s more questions than answers.”

Delegate Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, said he believes the bill passed the House unanimously because the possibilities were explained in full.

“One thing that was explained to myself and several other delegates, that hemp has always been produced in the country and has always been a fairly reliable crop,” Iaquinta said. “Most people I think are afraid of the THC level which can be very detrimental or used to grow marijuana, which is very similar. But one thing they brought out in our discussions was the hemp level is so low that it is not used for drugs.”

Industrial hemp has low THC content — below 0.3 percent as required by federal law. THC is the psychoactive property of the plant, the amount of which creates the difference between hemp and marijuana plants. The THC is so low in hemp, that Mike Manypenny, a farmer and member of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative, compares it to poppy seeds.

“Poppy seeds have residual amounts of opioids in it, and you can fail a drug test by eating poppy seeds. Well, hemp is very similar,” Manypenny said. “But poppy seeds are legal.”

Hemp can be used for up to 50,000 products, including food, oils, fibers for textiles and clothing, animal feed, paper and bioplastics. In addition to that, it can be used to create building materials such as hempcrete and graphene, which can be used in batteries.

“We already have markets like that established in West Virginia, which could create economic prosperity in areas where we have a lack of diversity or prosperity,” Manypenny said. “It creates a new opportunity for farmers and the downstream industries that can come along with it.”

Manypenny believes hemp offers nearly limitless opportunities, and both farmers and residents would see benefits from hemp-made products. One of these advantages would include being able to create more biodegradable material, helping reduce un-recyclable plastic, starting in agriculture.

Industrial hemp can also be used to create CBD oils, a medicinal component of the plant. He said CBD is in high demand because of the neuro-protectant properties it has, and is legal throughout the United States if it comes from a hemp plant, though not from a marijuana plant. While it has many uses, CBD can be greatly beneficial to people with epilepsy.

Commercializing industrial hemp will also help create jobs throughout the state and allow farmers to see major profits.

“The oils, they go for about $40 a gallon wholesale, and an acre can produce between 50 and 90 gallons of oil per acre. So you figure, best case scenario is 90 gallons, so $40, that’s $460 of added commodities,” Manypenny said.

There are also fibers that could be pelletized as an alternative to oak wood pellets.

“We’d have to get a pelletizer, but I think these things will pay for themselves in the long run and make more diversity and more job opportunities not just for farmers but for people in the community,” Manypenny said.

One difficulty is that it’s a plant, said Crescent Gallagher, communications director with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

“It’s unique in the fact it’s like wool or bamboo; you have to take it and make it into something. On itself, you can’t do anything with it,” Gallagher said. “There is a challenge there. You have to have a manufacturer here that can take the hemp and make it useful.”

He pointed out it’s a chicken or egg situation.

“You won’t have the manufacturers come here if there’s not enough growers, but the growers won’t grow until they know it can go to a plant that can be made into something. It can be made into numerous things, but it has to be made into something,” Gallagher said. “In the future it can be a job creator, if we can get manufacturers to relocate to West Virginia.”

He said while the plant grows better in certain locations, it can prosper almost anywhere.

“It’s a pretty versatile crop, and can take any soil in the state,” Gallagher said.

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