Restrictions on growing industrial hemp in the United States were lifted with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill this past December. Legalizing hemp for farming in the U.S. also helped many to understand the true value of industrial hemp as a trade commodity.

Legalization, however, is just the first step in building America’s hemp industry, according to a recent news release from the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

“Industrial hemp is a rural development opportunity that allows small farms to get into growing hemp. It may also provide a way to engage young people with returning to the family farm,” said Kimley Blanks, agriculture and development director for Halifax County.

Once one of Colonial America’s few significant cash crops, industrial hemp was used for fabricating ropes, fishing net and canvas sails.

Hemp production came to a halt in the U.S. in the 1950s, when the Food and Drug Administration ruled the plant a controlled substance because it contained not quite 0.3 percent and less of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

The new Farm Bill removes industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The USDA would assume responsibility for supervision wherever it is grown as a crop.

For now, according to a VFBF news release, cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive compound that is added to food and beverages, health products and pet snacks is still subject to FDA regulations.

Today, with regard to industrial hemp, the U.S. is, in large part, dependent on imports. The nation looks to Canada and China to meet demand for both hemp products and for hemp as an ingredient for further processing.

According to the Congressional Research Service, industry estimates report U.S. hemp product sales at around $700 million annually.

According to reports from the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, interest in the crop is widespread, and VFBF members are fielding questions about its cultivation and marketing from farmers. Tony Banks, a VFBF commodity marketing specialist, remains cautiously optimistic about the evolving business,

“A big challenge for the hemp industry is to determine the proper regulatory requirements from the state and federal government. Industrial hemp has potential to become a new industry, but until some regulatory structure is in place for plant varieties, production systems and end-use products, it will be the Wild West for the next several years,” he said.

Erin Williams of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who served as a panelist at the hemp summit, said there is a significant interest in growing industrial hemp, especially in southside Virginia.

“VDACS has issued 140 industrial hemp grower registrations and 30 industrial hemp processor registrations since July, and more than 250 grower applications are pending renewal or approval,” Williams said.

In an attempt to create interest and answer any questions regarding industrial hemp as a production crop, the Charlotte County Cooperative Extension hosted a Hemp Conference at the Appomattox Community Center on March 25. The Conference was well attended by an interested group of residents. Those in attendance wanted more information on the opportunities hemp could provide, said Extension agent Joann Jones. “Overall, I think it was a big success.”

Charlotte County, along with neighboring counties that make up south central Virginia, have historically been tobacco, and then later, soybean, producers. The trade war in general, and also the extended trade talks with China have hit the region especially hard.

Industrial Hemp could potentially fill a huge agricultural gap there.

“About 25 people showed up for the conference,” Jones said. “There was plenty of information for them to absorb. Margaret Collins of Collins Farm was there; she grew a crop (of hemp) last year. She also talked about some of the challenges an industrial hemp producer might encounter.”

Erin Williams, from VDACS, spoke at the conference. She talked mainly about the legislative guidelines associated with growing hemp. Currently, the legislation that is in effect makes it illegal to possess plants containing 0.3 percent of THC or higher.

“However,” Jones added, “there is also talk of raising the allowable limit of THC in industrial hemp from 0.3 percent to 0.6 percent THC. That would make a huge difference in the amount of worry farmers have over their crop’s THC levels.”

Jones also mentioned a guest appearance by a local law enforcement officer at the meeting. She said the officer emphatically stressed the importance of carrying any and all registration information or licensing paperwork with you at all times if you are a hemp producer.

For more information on growing industrial hemp, contact Extension agent Joann Jones at the Charlotte County Cooperative Extension office at 434-542-5884.

Noel Oliver is a freelance writer in southern Virginia.

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