State’s first hemp harvest for research complete
Once a mainstay of Colonial American agriculture, commercial cultivation of hemp in the U.S. ended after World War II under the federal 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Nearly 80 years later, farmers and researchers in Virginia and other states are working to revive the versatile crop.
“Of course, hemp is not new. Hemp was grown in the 1700s here in the Shenandoah Valley,” said Glenn Rodes, a Rockingham County grain farmer and Rockingham Farm Bureau member. “We’re just bringing back an old crop and trying new things with it.”
Hemp was one of the first crops raised in the New World; Jamestown settlers were required by local authorities to grow it. It was a principal ingredient in rope and sails for centuries. But by the Civil War hemp production had faded against competition from cheaper fiber imports.
While hemp is from the same plant family as marijuana, it contains no psychoactive ingredients. In 2015 the Virginia General Assembly approved issuing licenses to grow hemp for research purposes. Supporters say the opportunities for hemp are endless.
“Scientists and industry are figuring out other ways to use those fibers,” said Dr. John Fike, associate professor of crop and environmental sciences at Virginia Tech. “For instance, in Europe they are taking the fibers and putting them into blow molds and making automobile doors and things like that which have a high degree of structural integrity and are lighter in weight.”
In addition to being a good source of vegetable oil, hemp seeds offer the possibility of improved human nutrition products, Fike said. He experimented with both fiber and oilseed hemp varieties at Virginia Tech’s agricultural research farm in Montgomery County. His was one of five research plots paid for in 2016 with $165,000 in grant money from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Another research plot was in the middle of Rodes’ cornfield.
“I’ve always had an interest in alternative crops, particularly energy crops,” Rodes said. “We grow canola as an energy crop. We crush it and make biodiesel. And hemp is another crop that has a great potential as an energy crop.”
Fike said it could be a few years before industrial hemp is a valuable commodity in Virginia. Even so, he hopes there will be at least several thousand acres of hemp grown in Virginia over the next five years.