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Year closes on first public industrial hemp grown in decades


The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — According to “The Columbia History of the World,” the oldest relic of human industry, a small piece of hemp fabric, dates back to approximately 8,000 B.C.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and, at times, its growth was mandatory to supply the nation with the raw material that was processed into clothing, sails and rope for various uses.

Ricky Lucas picks hemp from a harvest in Sweet Springs in September. This year, West Virginia opened the cultivation of industrial grade hemp to the public, and growers harvested some of the first crops since it was banned from the state in 1937.
(Register-Herald photo by Jenny Harnish)

However, with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the production of agricultural hemp for the most part stopped.

While often confused with its cousin marijuana, industrial hemp has very little tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive agent found in marijuana.

This year, the state of West Virginia opened up the cultivation of industrial grade hemp to the public for the first time, and small plots of the industrial crop have been planted throughout the state.

While not full-on production, West Virginia has opened up the state’s farms to closely monitored hemp grown for research on cultivation and processing.

“These opportunities need to be capitalized on, and some of us are working hard to get there,” said Don Smith, the founder of the West Virginia Farmer’s Cooperative, an organization dedicated to the promotion of the hemp industry.

West Virginia isn’t the first Appalachian state to try to learn the benefits of hemp.

In 2014, Kentucky began its own research project into industrial hemp.

Now in its fourth year, Kentucky’s program has grown from 20 approved grows over 33 acres in 14 counties, to 200 growers covering 12,800 acres in 71 counties.

Smith is excited about the possibilities for industrial hemp in the Mountain State and said he has watched the progress in Kentucky with eager eyes.

According to Smith, his crop this year ran a little behind schedule and he blamed strict Drug Enforcement Administration regulations.

“We could’ve done so much better,” Smith said.

Although the program is state-approved, there are still many questions on the federal level on how to approach the subject.

Smith said he and the co-op were forced to purchase their seed from overseas sources due to DEA regulation.

The seeds that Smith received were somewhat defective, leading Smith and the co-op to collect good seeds from this crop to form an in-state seed bank.

“We want to be nothing but the best of quality,” Smith said. “We learned an awful lot this year of what not to do.”

Smith believes that agricultural hemp, along with other alternative crops, can lead to a “paradigm shift in agriculture in this state.”

“(It’s) a matter of capitalizing on what you’ve got and what you can do well,” Smith said.

According to the West Virginia University Extension Service, West Virginians spent some $8.3 billion on food in 2016.

Although the state may never match that number in agricultural food output, Smith is hopeful that agricultural hemp and other alternative crops may level the playing field a bit.

“People have forgot all about agriculture in West Virginia,” Smith said.

According to the National Hemp Association, industrial hemp has up to 50,000 uses, from traditional hemp cloth to biofuels.

The association listed multiple uses for the hardy plant — the seeds can be used as a food source, oil derived from the plant for food, as well as body care products and even paint, with the plant’s fiber useful for paper, building materials, plastics, insulation and fabrics.

According to the association, hemp is also a high-yield crop, producing twice as much oil as peanuts and nearly four times more pulp than wood per acre.

Smith calls the plant the “Holy Grail” of crops and also links the crop for use in advanced batteries that could lead to smart grids and cheaper alternative energies.

Although the farmer is disappointed in the limitations placed on agricultural hemp, he is hopeful for the future of the plant and West Virginia’s role in that future.

“People are coming around,” Smith said.
Farming in West Virginia

There are two men on the West Virginia state flag, a miner and a farmer.

Although the history of West Virginia may have begun with the subsistence farmer, the balance quickly shifted to the underground worker for the majority of West Virginia, save the eastern border states.

Southern West Virginia is home to both of those men pictured on the flag.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the region’s eastern border counties Greenbrier and Monroe account for nearly 10 percent of the state’s farmland with a combined 334,806 acres devoted to crops or livestock.

By comparison, the 11 remaining counties of southern West Virginia account for 262,633 acres devoted to farm industry, or 72,173 acres less than the two easternmost counties.

The disparity is most prevalent in five counties in particular: Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming.

Those coal-producing counties contribute just 9,103 acres to the state’s production of agriculture.

Although acreage may not always mean profits in agriculture, in southern West Virginia’s case it most certainly does.

According to the farm census, Monroe and Greenbrier counties accounted for over $108 million of agricultural market value, while the remaining 11 counties of southern West Virginia, excluding McDowell, accounted for just over $19 million in agricultural market value.

Although the topography of the land in the coalfields may, in general, lead to the disparity in the agricultural land and profit, there’s a new hope to boost agricultural output in the state: agricultural hemp.

 Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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