Just a few months ago, West Virginia brought to a close a 70-year-long prohibition on the cultivation of “industrial hemp”—a non-psychoactive and distinct variety of the plant, Cannabis sativa. Through the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative / WV Hemp Industries Association, nine bold farmers were selected and permitted by the Department of Agriculture to grow several dozen acres of several different Italian and Canadian cultivars for the Mountain State’s inaugural growing season. These agronomic pioneers were celebrated across the state (and nation) during the 7th-Annual Hemp History Week in June, including events in Charleston, Wheeling, Parkersburg, and Shepherdstown.
The resurgence of hemp farming in the U.S. represents a unique opportunity for West Virginia at a critical juncture and will enable diversification of the economic base, establish reliable jobs, income, and state revenue. Additionally, it will introduce new opportunities in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, architecture, and manufacturing. This unique opportunity is reflected simply in the 2016 Hemp History Week campaign theme: Grow Our Future.
Hemp can diversify the economic and agronomic base of the state. West Virginia is one of the top 15 producers of apples in the U.S., and does so with less than 5,000 acres of apples. Currently, there are well over 600,000 acres of farmland used to cultivate corn, soy, and hay that could be diverted into hemp production—not counting the coalfields and reclaimed mountain-top removal acreage. Investing in sustainable agriculture should be central to the state’s transition away from coal.
Hemp cultivation and processing, along with the suite of ancillary services the industry will require (everything from security to consulting to marketing), will establish reliable streams of jobs, income, and state revenue. Given the nature of West Virginia’s commercial (i.e. non-research) hemp regulations, it has tremendous potential to provide revenue and entrepreneurial opportunities to small businesses throughout the state. Total retail sales in the U.S. in 2015 for hemp foods, dietary supplements, and personal care products alone was estimated at $283 million. Attention must be paid to both cultivation and processing infrastructure, and this requires coordination and cooperation within the industry—in addition to sufficient government resources.
Hemp will enable new opportunities in renewable energy as well as sustainable agriculture, architecture, and manufacturing. All parts of the plant can be harvested to create endless product ideas in multiple markets. Seeds are harvested to provide a complete source of essential amino acids that can be used in the human food and dietary supplement and animal feed markets, as well as a high-quality oil for both food and industrial applications.
Flowers and leaves can be collected to have the medicinally important cannabinoids extracted and distilled into an oil (cannabidiol—or CBD oil). Stalks and branches contain two highly versatile layers: an outer layer of (bast) fibers and an inner woody core (hurd). Together, these provide the raw material inputs for products of renewable energy (biofuels, electronic double layer capacitor batteries), sustainable architecture (Hempcrete, hemp adobe), and sustainable manufacturing (biocomposites, bioplastics, and biopolymers)
Up until now, West Virginia has mined its future. It’s now time to GROW it.
— Erik is president of M3 Technical & Regulatory Services, serves on the Board of Directors of the West Virginia Hemp Industries Association, and is involved in multiple entrepreneurial and consulting projects in sustainable agriculture and chemical regulation.