In May, Amy Hicks, owner of Amyâ€™s Garden, planted her first legal industrial hemp crop on 1 acre of her 20-plus-year-old farm in Charles City County. The fibrous stocks smell herbaceous and range in appearance from short and stubby to tall and skinny.
â€śWe plant them about 6 feet apart, and they look like little Christmas trees when theyâ€™re out there,â€ť Hicks says of the hemp, which she harvested in September.
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 was enacted as part of the federal farm bill and removed hemp from its Schedule 1 controlled substance status, allowing it to be considered an agricultural commodity. In March 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Industrial Hemp Law, which meant hemp was no longer restricted to university research purposes in the state.
The move opened the floodgates of opportunity for farmers in Virginia, including Hicks, who describes hemp plants as â€śbeautiful and intriguing, with so many great possibilities.â€ť
Hicks planted six varieties of hemp in an attempt to determine which would be the ideal strain. Planting and harvesting was exciting, but the process also proved difficult.
â€śItâ€™s so new, and that was a surprising thing,â€ť she says. â€śWeâ€™re used to getting some seeds, growing them and everything goes along, but it was a new [crop], and there were unexpected challenges.
â€śBut as farmers, we like to grow just about anything and try something new,â€ť Hicks adds. â€śAlso, the possible health benefits associated with it are pretty intriguing. We think food is medicine, so it seemed like a logical plantÂ to grow.â€ť
In July, hundreds of individuals from farmers to lawyers gathered at Virginia State University for the sold-out Industrial Hemp Field Day, an exploration of the new law, the future of the crop and possible challenges. Hicks was there, along with Browntown Farms â€” one of the oldest black-owned and -operated farms in the state, located in Warfield in Brunswick County. Browntown, which is hoping to grow hemp in the future, provides peppers to theÂ Richmond-based company Gourmet Hemp Foods.
According to Erin Williams, senior policy analyst for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), who also serves as the agencyâ€™s industrial hemp grower and processor registration coordinator, as of October VDACS has issued 1,085 Industrial Hemp Grower registrations, 227 Industrial Hemp Processor registrations and 94 Industrial Hemp Dealer registrations. The state projects that more than 10,000 acres of hemp will be planted, and that 10 million square feet of indoor space will be dedicated to industrial hemp.
Hicks and other growers may choose to sell their crops either to a dealer or a processor. The biggest difference between the two is that processors are able to manufacture the hemp, which can be used to make CBD oil for medicinal uses, as fiber for rope and cloth, as animal bedding and feed, in cosmetics and building materials, andÂ in food.
Hicks is searching for a processor to turn the plants she grows into CBD oil. CBD is one of hundreds of compounds derived from the cannabis family that produces no psychoactive affects and is promoted as a cure for ailments ranging from sleep disorders to epilepsy.
â€śWe felt like our customers would be interested in this, and it fit in with what we currently offer,â€ť says Hicks, who envisions selling sublingual or topical CBD oil at markets. â€śI think thereâ€™s so much out there, and people are confused by [CBD], and I think weâ€™re fortunate we have a customer base where people trust us.â€ť
To legally possess the plants, seeds, leaves or flowers of hemp requires registration through VDACS. Hicks describes the process as simple and cost-effective (the fee is $50). Hemp for human consumption must be approved by VDACS and also follow Food Safety Program guidelines.
Currently, there are no limits on how much hemp a farmer can grow, and farmers are not required to fence in a hemp field. VDACS may conduct random testing to ensure that the hemp is below 0.3% THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. If itâ€™s over that limit, the growers will be required to destroy it.
Some people at the Industrial Hemp Field Day expressed concerns about accurate sampling, testing regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, crop insurance and potential issues with law enforcement. While it is too early to predict the economic impact of hemp in the state, according to data compiled by New Frontier Data and provided by VDACS, hemp sales in the U.S. hit $820 millionÂ in 2017 and are expected to grow toÂ $1.9 billionÂ by 2022.
But the journey for hemp in Virginia is merely getting started, and Hicks says, â€śIt feels good to be involved from the beginning and get this industry figured out.â€ť