Virginia Tech to research production, use, and economic impact of industrial hemp

vtech-logoVirginia Tech will be able to begin research on growing industrial hemp in the commonwealth as a result of a new state law and the establishment of an industrial hemp research program by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The bill Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law on Monday states that Virginia institutions of higher education can grow industrial hemp for research purposes. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will issue the growing licenses. The law does not take effect until July 1.

“We look forward to working with our partners across the state to undertake research that has the potential to bring a new crop to Virginia’s already robust agricultural portfolio,” said Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’sCollege of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Although we are only in the beginning stages of establishing this program, our research abilities, when combined with Virginia Cooperative Extension and our Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, can help this new initiative grow and benefit the state.”

Hemp has a long history in Virginia dating back to the 1600s, when the law stated that Jamestown farmers must grow it because the fiber’s many uses were so vital to the colony. In the colonial era, farmers could pay their taxes with hemp.

Fourteen states have established industrial hemp programs and are exploring how the plant can boost economic development. United States retail sales of hemp-based products could exceed $300 million annually, according to industry reports. Most of the 55,700 metric tons of hemp produced around the world comes from China, Russia, South Korea, so this program provides an opportunity for Virginia to enter a global market.

Some questions about Virginia Tech’s role in this new program are answered below.

What is industrial hemp? Industrial hemp is plant that has many beneficial uses. It is a non-psychoactive, low-THC variety of the plant Cannabis sativa that has absolutely no use as a recreational drug and is genetically different from marijuana. The law states that all industrial hemp must be tested to ensure it contains an amount of THC that is less than what is allowed under federal law.

What are some of the potential uses of industrial hemp that Virginia Tech may explore? 
Industrial hemp is considered a dual-purpose crop and is grown for both fiber and oil. Its seed oil has the potential as an alternative energy source and as an ingredient in pharmaceuticals. It can also be used as cooking oil and in snacks. Hemp fiber is used in clothing, rope, construction materials, carpeting, and in the automobile industry. Beyond production and processing, the university may also explore the economics of hemp production and how it may benefit the commonwealth.

When will Virginia Tech begin research on industrial hemp and what will it study? 
Virginia Tech will work with Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to establish research and demonstration test plots. Inputs will be sought from the industry regarding research needs and priorities. Although details are still being worked out, including the identification of research funding sources, industrial hemp test plots could be established in the 2016 growing season.

Researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will be able to evaluate optimum soil, climate, and fertility conditions for hemp production in the commonwealth, as well as assess harvesting methods, and develop new applications for industrial hemp. Economic and marketing issues such as the global industrial hemp market, industry partnerships, and domestic processing technologies may also be examined.

Virginia Tech will work with other commonwealth higher education research institutions interested in the project.

Where will the research plots be located? Virginia offers different climates that may be suitable for growing industrial hemp. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will work within its network of 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, along with researchers at the Blacksburg campus, Virginia State University, and Virginia Cooperative Extension, to evaluate optimum soil, climate, and production conditions for industrial hemp production.

The new legislation states that research and demonstration plots may be located on university research farms or suitable private land where producers have secured the appropriate permits from Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and have written agreements with the universities. These details are being developed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

How can local producers be part of the program? Producers interested in becoming part of the research and demonstration program must first get a permit from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and have written agreements with the universities. These details are still be developed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  Anyone growing industrial hemp must follow regulations stipulated in the law and must allow research to be conducted at approved pilot sites.

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