Virginia farmers hail hemp as the next big cash crop

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — There’s a lot of buzz about hemp these days. Changes in the law are planting new opportunities for Virginia farmers and consumers.  

Congress decided to no longer treat hemp like pot, but instead like a crop. While hemp and marijuana are cousins: Hemp contains very low levels of THC, the chemical that gets you high.

Many farmers see it as the next big cash crop with numerous new product possibilities for all of us. With any new opportunity, there is also a risk.

“There are very few times in life that you can get involved in something this early and this new,” says Rockingham County Farmer Glenn Rodes.

The dairy and turkey farmer Glenn Rodes looks out over the fields of his Rockingham County farm and sees a new potential for profits.

“The seed has been harvested,” Rodes said, holding a hemp stalk that was harvested last year.

Rodes, who is a partner at Riverhill Farms, has actually been growing and harvesting hemp for the past three years, but by law, he could only do it as part of a research project with James Madison University.

“We started out doing 10 acres a year,” he explained. “There’s been a lot a red tape early on with getting the seed into the country.”

Today, the prohibition on the plant is over.  

“We will be able to sell this crop on the commercial market.” The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the controlled dangerous substance list and recent changes in state law now make it legal to produce and trade hemp in Virginia.

“The General Assembly has removed the research requirement,” Erin Williams, Senior Policy Analyst for VADACS, said.

She says there’s huge interest in hemp farming in the Commonwealth. Still, you can’t just grow it in your garden.

“You need to have a grower registration in order to grow hemp in Virginia,” says Williams.

As of April 5, 2019, VADACS issued 447 industrial hemp grower registrations and 65 industrial hemp processer registrations.

“I think farmers are looking for additional ways to supplement what they are already doing,” says Williams.

She tells us there is big interest from hurting tobacco farmers in Southwest Virginia.

“Agriculture has been depressed so commodity prices are down, milk prices are down, so farmers are looking for an opportunity to grow something to make money,” Rodes explained.

It’s not without some uncertainty, though.

Because of all the prior restrictions, there’s little guidance for farmers — a steep learning curve and a chance all this interest will flood the market.

Plus, there’s oversight; their product can’t contain more than 0.3% THC or farmers could be forced to destroy their crop. 

“VDACS will send in inspectors to sample industrial hemp production field and for the THC concentration,”

Yet for farmers and consumers, the production possibilities seem endless.

“There’s thousands of uses for hemp,” Rodes added. “My interest is in food and fiber. Hemp has a very good protein profile, it’s very rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.”  

He believes it be a direct replacement for something like fish oil in our diets.

And that’s not all: it could be used for paper, plastic and clothing.

“Textile would come from the outside of the stalk, the internal part of the stalk would be used for things like bedding and installation,” Rodes said. “The oil from the hemp plant can be used to make bio-diesel.”

So far most of the hype over hemp lies in CBD or cannabidiol, which is extracted from hemp. We’ve seen it come in all kinds of products from gummies and bath bombs to lotions and oils. Still, there are grey areas with this too.

The (FDA) Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t come out with official rules on how CBD can be sold. Scant restrictions mean not all products are created equal.

A 2017 study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher found 70 percent of the products sold online were mislabeled, sometimes containing THC levels high enough to cause impairment. And while many swear CBD treats everything from anxiety to depression to chronic pain, they known benefits are foggy. There’s just not a lot of research.

Still, for farmers like Rodes, it’s an industry budding with opportunity. 

“I am very excited about it,” he says.

The FDA will hold a public hearing on CBD next month. 

If you’re wondering how do you weed through what’s a good quality product and what’s not, here’s a list of tips:

1. Has the product been tested by a third party lab?

When purchasing any CBD product check the packaging to see if it has tested by a 3rd party laboratory. If it has been tested, then lab reports for that product should be readily available somewhere on the company’s website.

2. Was the analysis performed by an accredited lab?

Make sure that they are accredited in accordance with the (ISO) International Organization for Standardization. This means the lab meets certain standards and operates under certain guidelines that are approved and monitored by a governing body.

3. Does the CBD product contain 0.3% THC or less?  

This is the amount considered legal and safe in most states.

4. What ingredients the product contains

If not listed, that’s a red flag.

5. How was the CBD extracted from the hemp?

There are several methods for extracting CBD; however, CO2 extraction is the standard because it is safe and delivers a pure end product.

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