You can process the fiber into everything from rope to car door panels, feed the seeds to goldfinches or put them in your smoothies for a dose of Omega-3, roll the flowers into cigars, extract the compounds to heal everything from sore muscles to cancer, and then make a mulch from what’s left.
Hemp, the hard-working plant that’s been with the human race for a good bit of our history, is a crop whose time has come (again), and everyone’s interested. Locally, the soil’s great for hemp production, said Joe Kuhn, founder of Albemarle Hemp Company in White Hall. The climate’s ideal, so why hasn’t everyone with a couple of acres dug up their weedy areas and planted little slips (they’re called clones) of Cannabis sativa L.?
For one thing, it was illegal for most of the 20th century, said John Fike, Virginia Tech’s forage extension specialist. For centuries, hemp held on to its status as the material of choice for the ropes and sails that powered the age of discovery, but a combination of steam engines, synthetic materials and a fear of “reefer madness” caused this country and western Europe to crack down. Fike said there were probably some commercial interests involved in banishing hemp cultivation, too.
When researchers discovered that CBD—one of the many cannabinoids in hemp—was helpful in treating epilepsy, it was a game-changer, Fike said. The state gave properly registered growers the go-ahead to raise plants for their CBD content. These plants are distinct from marijuana plants, which are high in THC, a cannabinoid that, unlike CBD, is psychoactive.
It’s only in the last few years that Virginia established the regulatory framework to allow hemp farming in the commonwealth, so there’s a shortage of experts, even of growers who have a couple years of production under their belts.
Kuhn and Albemarle Hemp’s owner, Calder Kegley, hope to fill that void with their experience and connections. Kuhn, an environmental scientist, served as farm manager at a cannabis operation in California. As a conservation steward for Virginia, Kegley grew up on his family’s southwest-Virginia farm, studied forestry, and has run and owned several agricultural businesses. Both men are interested in encouraging, advising and connecting small, well-managed farms.
Although the natural conditions in western Albemarle generally favor hemp, there are some challenges. Kuhn said his company can help new growers find the right site with the right soil, or improve a site that’s not ideal.
That’s the easy part. “A more significant issue with hemp is pest control,” Kuhn said. Corn worms, mites, aphids and other familiar insects will damage a crop as surely as they damage your roses and corn. Another challenge, he said, is the humidity we all accept as a normal part of Virginia summers. Although hemp loves the spring rains and warm summers here, the steamy atmosphere can encourage mildew and mold on the buds.
To help new hemp farmers in Virginia’s Piedmont avoid costly mistakes, Albemarle Hemp Company consults with them at every step, from finding the right seeds and plants to the harvest. In between, there’s testing and preparing the soil, tilling, planting, mulching, and troubleshooting throughout Virginia’s long growing season. The young company has some stands of hemp in White Hall, plus some other plots on Blufton and Clark Roads, using seeds and plant stock from a private facility near Staunton.
Kuhn said the county’s interest in this crop is steadily increasing, especially among those with smaller holdings. The intense labor needed for hemp and the potential profitability of CBD production make it ideal for properties of less than three acres. Virginia Tech’s Fike said he spoke with a grower who did very well selling his small harvest of 100 hemp flowers at farmers markets, but also knows of farmers who grew more last year than could be processed or marketed.
Presently, there are strict limits to the amount of THC (which occurs naturally in all hemp in small amounts) allowed in formulations of CBD. Farmers aren’t entirely in control of that: weather, stress and other factors may push the amounts in legally grown hemp higher. Kuhn said he’d like to see a slightly higher limit, as well as regulations that allow processors to dilute the THC percentage to bring it down.
Once THC production becomes legal, Kuhn believes both crops will find a place in local agriculture.
There’s a third hemp market that Kuhn expects to expand, one that reflects hemp’s past. “Last year I believe the number of permits from the Virginia Department of Agriculture were 98% for CBD production. That leaves 2% for fiber and grain,” he said.
He predicts that this will level out, and fiber and grain plantings will become more popular in the state. But this adds an additional challenge for other hemp growers. Current growers concentrating on CBD prize the female plants for the flowers and buds that go into smokable products and concentrated oils. “The issue here is that both fiber and grain are mostly derived from male hemp plants and the pollen generated from male plants can travel great distances and pollinate CBD crops, which will make them go to seed instead of flower,” he said. “This can be devastating to a small farmer who counts on flower production as the main revenue stream.”
An overall state GIS tracking system would allow farmers to know what kinds of plantings were near them, but this is in its early stages. When fully operational, it would allow growers to find out what’s growing nearby.
Fike doubts that Virginia farmers will raise vast stands of hemp for grain and fiber unless it gets to a point where it’s cheaper to grow than other forage crops. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “And we don’t have the huge fertile fields you find in the Midwest.”
Another glitch in the fledgling industry is a lack of processors, Kuhn said. “Some farmers still have their biomass from last year and are still looking for a way to move on to the next step.”
In addition to working with local farmers, Albemarle Hemp Company markets hemp products, everything from CBD-infused honey (a collaboration with Elysium Honey), to smokable flower products and gummies. Kuhn said they’re working towards all Virginia-made products. Many of the products are sold in and around Crozet, at the Piedmont Store, Parkway Pharmacy, Batesville Market and Misty Mountain Campground. To see a complete line of stores, products and services, visit albemarlehempcompany.com.