High Hopes for a New Cash Crop
Some say a once-illegal plant is the next big thing in West Virginia agriculture. A WVU graduate student is working hard to find out.
Susanna Wheeler prefers not to divulge the location of her summer garden. She’ll admit it is planted on WVU property, but that is as much information as she’s comfortable giving out. “We don’t want people to try to come up here and see what’s going on,” says the agronomy graduate student.
That’s because her crop, planted in neat rows on a quarter-acre plot, is instantly recognizable from certain dorm room posters, reggae albums, and Willie Nelson T-shirts. If you’ve ever stumbled into a shop that sells “for tobacco use only” items, you’ll instantly recognize its green, serrated leaves. Susanna Wheeler is growing Cannabis sativa.
Wheeler’s secrecy has nothing to do with getting in trouble with the law. She’s not worried about that. She just doesn’t want to attract any snooping onlookers who might interrupt her very important work—a research project that could potentially change West Virginia’s agriculture industry forever.
While her cannabis plants look identical to marijuana, they contain only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for the plant’s popularity as a recreational drug. That’s why Wheeler and others who work with the crop usually refer to it as “hemp.” It’s the hard-working, buttoned-down member of the cannabis family, with a long history of industrial use. The ships that brought European settlers to the New World were all outfitted with strong hemp ropes, and hemp was one of the first crops grown in the English colonies. But it fell out of use over the last century as it was outlawed alongside its psychedelic cousins.
There is hope for a comeback, however. Laws are slowly changing, and farmers around the country are beginning to take an interest in hemp again. West Virginia is beginning its own experiment with hemp this year. If the plant is able to thrive in West Virginia’s soil and growers can find willing markets, proponents believe hemp could be the next big industry our state so desperately needs—to the tune of millions of dollars and dozens of market applications.
ROOM TO GROW
It wasn’t too long ago that growing hemp, for any reason, was downright illegal. Despite hemp’s lack of THC, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still considers any varietal of cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. It’s on the same list as heroin, LSD, mescaline, and MDMA, also popularly known as Ecstasy. But when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, lawmakers included a provision allowing state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for research purposes, as long as state law allowed for hemp farming.
West Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, which was the nation’s largest grower of hemp before it was outlawed, has made a large investment in hemp research. After beginning with just about 30 acres of hemp in 2014, this year the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved more than 160 individual growers, not including university projects, to produce almost 4,500 acres of hemp.
Although Kentucky’s program is still focused entirely on research—that’s all federal law allows, after all—several processors have sprung up in the state to purchase growers’ crops. There are companies that process the fiber for textile production, clean the seeds for food use, and extract and refine oil from the seeds. There’s even a distillery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that makes hemp grain moonshine.
Hemp farming has technically been legal in West Virginia since the 1990s. The law as it was written allowed growers to raise hemp as long as they obtained permits from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the DEA. No hemp was ever legally grown since neither agency was issuing hemp permits back then, but the state wanted to be ready in case that day eventually arrived.
After Congress revised the Farm Bill, state lawmakers in 2015 removed the requirements for a DEA permit from West Virginia Code and created an application process for the hemp program. Eric Ewing, director of the agriculture department’s Plant Industries Division, says he got many phone calls when that application process began on June 1, 2015. But only a few growers actually decided to take the plunge.
Seven West Virginia growers, including Wheeler, now have full licenses to grow hemp. Morgan Leach, executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, estimates those growers have a combined 10 acres of hemp in the ground. Each operation will receive regular visits by Ewing and his staff as they test THC levels in the plants, because state law requires levels to be below 0.3 percent. “Most of them are starting small, which makes sense,” Ewing says. “Anything new like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re in our infancy.”
ROOTS OF AN INDUSTRY
Marty Biafora, director of operations for Morgantown-based iHemp, says his company is growing about 5 acres of hemp this year and soon will begin growing plants indoors at a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic facility. When it comes time this fall to harvest those plants, Biafora says there isn’t much use for them. Hemp can’t be transported across state lines—more about that below— and there’s nowhere to process hemp in West Virginia right now.
But Biafora isn’t concerned. He fully expects it will be years before the hemp industry turns a profit. “Our goal is to just get seed in the ground, get it up, go through the process of harvesting whatever amount we have, so we can know what to expect next year,” he says. “This is just an exploratory process to get the industry up and rolling.”
So what might the hemp industry look like once it’s all grown up? Leach imagines a day when the abandoned warehouses dotting the
Ohio River Valley are filled with hemp or hemp products waiting to be loaded onto river barges, trains, and trucks and shipped to the rest of the world.
“There is not another crop on the planet that has the utility of hemp,” Leach says. Its fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, rope, insulation, plastics, concrete substitutes, and fiberboard that’s stronger and lighter than wood. Leach is president of Agri Carb Electric, a company that he hopes will make hyper-efficient batteries from hemp fiber.
But the uses don’t end there. Hemp seeds are packed with proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that proponents claim boost immunity, prevent varicose veins, and lower cholesterol, among other purported health benefits. Hemp seeds also can be pressed to extract oils, which can be turned into biofuels, paint, detergent, and a legion of other products.
In 2015, the U.S. retail market sold more than $570 million in products made from hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, the Hemp Industries Association estimates. That includes $280 million in hemp food, food supplements, and body care products, up more than 10 percent over 2014 sales figures.
Leach believes sales will continue to grow as the industry develops—28 states now have laws allowing hemp research—and he’s confident hemp could be the big diversifier West Virginia’s fossil fuel-focused economy needs. He’s been in contact with a company that makes mats for mechanics, for which it imports 500 tons of hemp each year from Bangladesh. There’s also a food producer that uses 400 tons of hemp seed per year.
Capturing even a fraction of the international hemp market could be an unprecedented boon for the state’s agriculture sector. Most of West Virginia’s farmers do their work on evenings and weekends while relying on day jobs to pay the bills. According to 2007 Census statistics, four out of five West Virginia farms make less than $10,000 a year.
Leach says he doesn’t know how large the Department of Agriculture will allow the pilot program to get, but the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative already has about 40 people interested in growing hemp on their properties next year. “It’s a wide-open space, if you can navigate the legal hurdles to get it done,” he says. “As long as the sun shines, we’re in business.”
But, as Ewing at the agriculture department pointed out, the modern hemp industry is still only a seedling. It’s unclear what the fully grown business would look like—how deep its roots would go, how wide its leaves would reach. We don’t even know for sure how well the plant will grow in the state.
This is where Susanna Wheeler comes in.
FARMING IN THE DARK
If a West Virginia farmer needs advice for growing tomatoes, watermelons, wheat, asparagus, alfalfa, or any other common agricultural product, experts at the WVU Extension Service can provide most of the information she needs. Extension agents have access to data on the best times to plant crops, the best times to fertilize them, proper soil acidities, the optimal spacing of plants in fields, and many other variables. But, for the most part, hemp growers in West Virginia are flying blind.
Wheeler came back to WVU last fall. The Charleston native earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2012, then moved to Nicholas County, where she spent some time growing vegetables for farmers’ markets, growing sorghum for molasses, and tapping maple trees for syrup. When she returned to Morgantown to work on her master’s degree, she planned to spend her first summer researching cover crops, varieties of plants grown during agricultural downtimes to protect and enrich the soil.
But then her roommate mentioned the agriculture department’s hemp program. “I started reading about the legislation that was passed and decided I’d like to do a small experiment on the side,” she says.
The more she learned about hemp, however, the more she realized a small experiment wouldn’t be enough. “We know almost nothing about how it will grow in the state. We don’t know what varieties to recommend, we don’t know what fertilizer to recommend,” says Louis McDonald, WVU professor of plant and soil sciences and Wheeler’s adviser. Most of the U.S.-based hemp research Wheeler has uncovered dates back to the 1940s. “It’s not really relevant to our modern agricultural practices,” she says.
Wheeler discovered some basic information from a French textbook, along with a few journal articles and research papers. She got some advice from growers in Kentucky whose own hemp
experiments began a few years back. But there’s nowhere for West Virginia farmers to get state-specific information about hemp. “There’s so much research that needs to be done. I immediately became overwhelmed,” she says. She pitched the idea to McDonald, who agreed to give it a shot.
After completing the application process with the state agriculture department—which included state and federal background checks—Wheeler obtained an importer permit from the DEA before tracking down overseas companies to provide her hemp seeds. “They’re not plentiful. It’s not like, let’s go to Southern States and get some varieties or do a quick Google search.” She eventually found a broker based in Kentucky who had relationships with Italian and Polish hemp seed vendors. The seeds mostly arrived without incident, although U.S. Customs in New York held up one order for three weeks.
Wheeler finally planted the first of her seeds in late May, in that undisclosed half-acre plot on WVU property. She planted five varieties of hemp to see how well they would grow in West Virginia’s soil and climate conditions under different fertility levels, which she controls by adding compost to the plants.
She also began a second, smaller research project in late June to test hemp’s abilities as a “hyperaccumulator.” Other researchers’ findings suggest the plant might be able to extract harmful elements like cadmium, lead, and zinc from the ground. Wheeler has a few dozen plants growing in pots of contaminated soil at a WVU greenhouse. If the results prove promising, hemp eventually could be used to remediate former industrial sites.
For all the excitement surrounding hemp, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear before the plant can become a full-fledged cash crop. Lawmakers earlier this year passed an amendment to the agriculture department’s rules to exclude private growers from the hemp program.
“That’s what our attorneys advised us,” says State Senator Bob Williams, a Democrat from Taylor County, who made the amendment. He says West Virginia Code only allows the Department of Agriculture and state colleges and universities to grow hemp, so issuing permits to private growers is beyond the department’s authority. “We were trying to make the rule conform with the code.”
The changes disquieted hemp growers, many of whom had already invested money into the project, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill but Williams still believes the Department of Agriculture is operating the project outside the bounds of state law. “I’m not a lawyer, that’s just my opinion. But I think the law is clear as to what is allowed,” he says.
The agriculture department reads the law a little differently.
Chris Ferro, the department’s chief of staff, says the Farm Bill clearly allows for cultivation and marketing of hemp. “While there’s no definition of marketing (in the law), a dictionary definition of marketing means to sell,” he says. “Our interpretation was, if Congress wanted us to research and market, that’s what we intended to do.”
Federal laws and regulations provide their own challenges to hemp growers and officials. When Eric Ewing had to take hemp seeds from his office in Charleston to a grower in the Eastern Panhandle, he couldn’t drive his normal route through Virginia and Maryland. “I had to go all back roads, staying in-state, because if I’d crossed state lines I would have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.” That’s a felony.
Ewing also made sure to bring lots of identification and paperwork on the off chance he’d be stopped by a curious police officer along the way. “We were very careful not to speed. Not that we aren’t always, but we were extra careful,” he says.
And even once the hemp is fully grown, growers cannot transport their crop across state lines—it must first be processed into textiles, paper, seed oil, or other products. But as of right now, there aren’t any producers in West Virginia ready to turn raw hemp into end-use products. One grower does have plans to buy a seed oil press, but his operation is not up and running yet. “It’s going to lose its novelty unless you can sell it,” Louis McDonald says.
Morgan Leach at the hemp farmers’ co-op says these issues likely will not go away until Congress completely legalizes hemp. And until that happens, the hemp industry likely will not get the one thing it needs most to thrive: money.
For the time being, Wheeler is doing all her research alone, for no pay. McDonald says the agronomic study of hemp is so new it’s difficult to get funding for research. “Because it’s such a rigmarole to get seed, nobody’s willing to give you money until you can show you’re able to get seed. My hope is we can do this little project now, get the seed, collect data, secure our plots, do the research … (and) next year it will give us leverage,” he says. “Lots of university people are interested, but they don’t have money to do additional research. It’s always the problem: Where’s the money going to come from?”
McDonald says if the industry ever takes off in West Virginia, we’ll have Wheeler to thank. “She has done an enormous amount of work,” he says. “She’s the one who’s worked with these seed companies, worked with the Department of Agriculture, tried to get these additional growers to participate. It would not be here without her.”
Despite worries about money and legality, Wheeler is plowing ahead. Her projects will likely run through October, when she will harvest seed from the hemp plants. If she’s able to get enough funding, she’d like to test soil samples to see how hemp changes soil’s chemical makeup.
She knows these experiments will only answer a handful of the questions that remain about hemp. But it’s a start. “There’s a lot of speculation,” Wheeler says. “There are prolific pro- and anti-hemp beliefs. But right now, they’re just that. Beliefs.”