Hemp growing land to increase more than 15-fold

A hemp plant growing at Appalachian Extracts in White Sulfur Springs. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

Officials with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) announced Tuesday that they will have greatly expanded the number of licenses distributed throughout the state to grow industrial hemp.

In total, the number of licenses will increase from 46 last year to 158 licenses this year. Of the applicants, 71 selected the processing of hemp as part of their submission.

The granted applications account for more than a 243 percent increase from last year, but that increase is dwarfed by the hemp acreage that is proposed.

According to the WVDA, there is 2,531 acres of land proposed for hemp cultivation throughout the state this year, a 1,532 percent increase over last year's 155-acre mark.

“It is obvious West Virginia farmers are excited to tap into this new, legal cash crop," West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said in a news release. "It is great to see a large majority of applicants have shown some interest in becoming a processor. Taking raw materials and adding value to them will help West Virginia’s industry thrive.” 

The cultivation of hemp in West Virginia was made possible by action by the state's legislature in 2017, which first opened the state up to the growing of industrial hemp. The passing of the 2018 Federal Farm Bill in December removed hemp from the list of federally controlled substances, allowing hemp growers to participate in U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.

Before the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was categorized will its cousin marijuana as a drug, despite the fact that industrial hemp contains less than 1 percent of  tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana which produces psychoactive effects. Marijuana ranges between 10 and 40 percent THC. 

According to the Hemp Industries Association, evidence of human use of hemp dates back to at least 10,000 years ago.

Hemp growth was mandatory in the United States during the Colonial and Early Republic eras, and both President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson were cultivators of hemp.

While the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made the cultivation of hemp more difficult, the federal government found it in their interest to push the cultivation of hemp during World War II after hemp supplies from East Asia were cut off by the Japanese.

Following the war, hemp returned to its position of limbo with federal authorities until recently.

While the 2018 Farm Bill has made the growing of hemp legal, the particulars of federal regulation have not yet been handed down.

“We are still in a holding pattern until more federal guidelines are released this fall, but at least we know West Virginia is ahead of the game on this emerging industry," Leonhardt said in the release. "We will update our law to respond to any changes in policy or regulation from our federal partners once more information is released."

Currently, the state is operating under its own guidelines until federal guidelines become clearer, though there is already a federal legal precedent in the state that allows the cultivation of hemp to continue.

Last year, a federal civil suit, brought by U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart for the Southern District of West Virginia, argued that a Mason County farmer violated the CSA by purchasing hemp seeds from Kentucky instead of the federally mandated purchase of seeds from international sources.

In March, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers threw out the suit against the hemp grower, citing the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) made possible by the 2018 Federal Farm Bill.

While agriculture is a fairly small economic activity in the state, the increase in hemp production could change the state's agricultural makeup.

According to the USDA's 2017 Census of Agriculture, while most of the land dedicated to agriculture in the state is either for livestock or for the production of hay supporting livestock, the growth of hemp is already rivaling other cropland endeavors in the state.

In 2017, the USDA found that 2,651 acres in the state were dedicated to growing vegetables for sale, with the total hemp acreage planned for 2019 rivaling that figure.

The planned 2,500 acres of hemp in the state this year is also closing in on the 2017 figure for orchard acreage in the state, 6,570 acres, and the figure for wheat in the state at 4,485 acres.

According to Food Business News (FBN), West Virginia is not the only state seeing an explosion in the cultivation of hemp. FBN found that national production of hemp increased from 25,713 acres in 2017 to 78,176 acres in 2018. The largest jump was seen in Montana which increased from 542 acres in 2017 to 22,000 acres in 2018.

In total, 23 states grew hemp in 2018. 

-- Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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