CALLANDS — With the legalization of hemp production, local tobacco farmers are testing the waters as they search for the next cash crop amid a difficult agricultural economy.
Between constant rain, depressed commodity prices and loss of markets, Callands farmer Robert Mills said he had never seen the farming industry in this state.
The introduction of industrial hemp to the equation has tobacco farmers — who have been hit hard by the industry’s decline and tariffs by major importers — hopeful that it could be their gold mine.
“I like to say it’s almost like the Wild West out here,” said Mills, who plans to grow 6 acres. “There’s not a whole lot of knowledge, but there’s a lot of interest.”
When the General Assembly followed the federal 2018 Farm Bill’s move to allow hemp as an agricultural commodity, farmers and processors were already prepared to step in for the 2019 growing season. Mills credited Sen. Frank Ruff and Del. Danny Marshall for the quick action.
Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services senior policy analyst Erin Williams said that as of this week, there are 360 registered hemp growers in the state intending to plant about 4,000 acres combined this year.
Department spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm said, “We have some growers everywhere with the largest concentration in Southside because a lot of the growers who were doing tobacco are switching to hemp.”
Williams said there are currently 18 growers registered in Pittsylvania County, 14 in Campbell County, seven in Halifax County and four in Henry County.
In order to be licensed, farmers just have to provide the exact coordinates for where they intend for the plots to be. Plus, they aren’t allowed to have had a drug felony conviction within the past 10 years.
Hemp — a different variety of the cannabis plant family than marijuana — has naturally low levels of THC, which is the chemical in marijuana that makes people high. Marijuana plants have THC concentrations between 15 and 40 percent whereas hemp is federally required to remain under 0.3 percent.
As Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau President Bob Harris put it, someone could smoke a whole acre of hemp without feeling a thing.
“There’s no possible way you can get high off of it,” said Harris, who plans to grow 1 acre.
Though industrial hemp has been grown for years in other countries, the United States has just begun to catch on with states like Colorado and Kentucky leading the pack.
While hemp has a wide variety of uses, tobacco farmers will focus on producing plants that will be harvested for CBD oil. CBD — short for cannabidiol — oil naturally occurs in the flowers of female cannabis plants. Researchers have been studying its effects; so far, it’s been used to reduce pain for those with such diseases as arthritis.
Mark Gignac, executive director at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, said this is an exciting time for the agriculture industry, which is constantly innovating.
“I think most consumers really don’t have a clue of all the innovations underway that result in all the food you buy in the grocery store,” he said.
In terms of hemp, the institute itself is working toward becoming one of the leading research institutions when it comes to advanced ways to grow hemp and facilitating conversations between experts and farmers in the years to come.
In one of its programs, it’s working toward developing beneficial bacteria that can provide a natural alternative to the use of chemical fungicides or pesticides during production that could be used for growing hemp.
In the past, tobacco has always been viewed as the crop that will always make more per acre than any other commodity, said Gignac.
“Where if industrial hemp, if it’s grown for the CBD oil or alternately for medical or human use, you can make far more money than anyone ever made in tobacco,” he said.
That has attracted the interest of not only farmers, but businesses ready to conduct research and invest during the boom before more government regulation enters the field.
Mills and Harris said they’ve both contracted with local companies to grow hemp. Mills said he worked with Virginia Tech to produce a field trial for hemp last year but it was going to be used for its fiber, not oil. This changed the production method.
Beyond just the search for a new product, tobacco farmers were ideal to take on the new challenge as their farming equipment suited growing hemp as well without needing to invest in new machinery. Tobacco farmers also already have curing houses for the plants to dry in, though they’ll use a different method than how they dry tobacco.
For the first year, Harris expects production to be very labor intensive because the learning curve will be so steep.
“The truth is until we get it in the ground, we’re not going to know how it’s going to do,” he said. He’s still figuring out exactly what method he’s going to try out come planting season in late May and early June.
“Right now, it’s still a new crop to this area, we really don’t know a lot about it,” said Harris.
Hemp hasn’t been grown in Virginia since before the 1930s, so Harris, Mills and Gignac say there is next to no research to assist farmers right now.
If someone walked up to Mills saying he knew exactly what to do, Mills said he’d be highly skeptical considering the differences between Virginia and the states that have already been growing hemp.
“It doesn’t take a lot of difference in elevation or a lot of difference in humidity or a lot of difference in soil types to change some parameters of growing,” said Mills.
Not only is there little guidance with how to grow, but there haven’t been any fungicides or pesticides approved for hemp to help maintain healthy plants. Plus, Mills noted that farmers have to be careful about who they contract with and ensure the legitimacy and fairness of the company.
On a monetary side, the Farm Bill did not provide crop insurance to cover any loss for the production of hemp for this year, and federal government loan guidelines haven’t been updated to include hemp production.
“So, we’re doing this on our own capital,” said Mills. “It’s like going to Vegas and putting it all on black.”
To make the venture even more risky, if an inspection finds that one of the plants exceeded the 0.3-percent THC threshold then the farmer has to destroy the whole field on his own dime, said Harris.
“There’s no safety net,” he said. Recognizing the risk, the company who hired him is only giving their farmer’s an option of a 1-acre contract.
Mills said the amount of profit will depend on how many pounds of flower his crop produces. They’ll have to balance the steady growth of CBD oil concentration with THC, harvesting at the right time.
Despite the risk, Mills and Harris are hopeful that they’ll see some success this year.
“We’re hoping this will be a viable alternative for tobacco farmers because we’re hurting right now,” said Harris. “If I can make some income on it and spread some of the risk from the tobacco avenues, then I would say it’s a success.”
Halle Parker reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 791-7981.