The time is right for exploring new strategies that both preserve the bucolic landscape of Jefferson County and recognize the need to grow the local economy along with the swelling population.

Sure, one could accept a string of factories that promise jobs and some dribs and drabs of local corporate philanthropy. (Surely you didn’t think Rockwool, once approved, would be the only one?) But what if we imagine a more sustainable future that embraces the deep and extensive agriculture history of the county—leveraging it into a “local circular bioeconomy” that adds value to the resources we already have and provides for the community instead?

Such a solution exists, and the production and processing of industrial hemp is a critical component.

The idea of a circular bioeconomy marries the concepts of “bioeconomy” and “circular economy.” The former, according to the European Commission, “encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value-added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products, and bioenergy.” The latter is a more recently embraced concept in the corporate world, and seeks to minimize waste and maximize the value of products, materials, and resources for as long as possible.

At its essence, the idea of a “local circular bioeconomy” strives to take materials and resources from the community, add value to it, and make longer-lasting products that create less waste. Not only is this more sustainable than factories in the long run, but draws resources from within the community instead of oil and gas originating far away and transported through hundreds of miles of pipeline with a limited life span.

But back to hemp, the non-psychoactive genetic cousin of marijuana (which has now been legalized in 10 states for recreational/adult use and approved for medical use in 30 additional states). Hemp is one of the truly most versatile and profitable agricultural crops known—in terms of the sheer volume of value-added products that are derived from it, including fabrics, paper, foods, construction material like hempcrete and hemp wood, novel batteries from hemp-derived carbon materials, bio-based plastic materials, and health and wellness-containing cannabidiol (CBD), hemp seed, and hemp oil. This is not new information; however, what is new are the actions taken by both the West Virginia legislature and the U.S. Congress that now allow widespread production and marketing of hemp-based products throughout all 50 states.

Taking Root

Truth be told, one of the few truly transformational actions that the West Virginia legislature has taken in the last decade or so was to establish a state-based industrial hemp cultivation program in 2017. This forward-thinking program places the state among a pack of states ready to spring into action following the passage of the “Farm Bill” by Congress (December 2018). This landmark legislation did two critically important things for domestic hemp production.

One, it removed hemp from regulation as a controlled substance, assuming it has less 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. THC is the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant and the active ingredient in products sold at medical and recreational dispensaries in certain states. (Most hemp strains produce minimal amounts of THC and moderate to high amounts of CBD, which is why the vast majority of U.S. hemp acreage is dedicated to CBD production.)

Two, the 2018 Farm Bill now allows for free movement of hemp across all state lines, and states are not allowed to restrict its passage, according to a May 2019 memorandum from the U.S. Department of Agriculture General Counsel. The bottom line is that West Virginia already has a federally recognized production program and now can market its hemp to anywhere in the country!

As a result, hemp farming in West Virginia has been steadily increasing since 2017, which was the first year of state production, with just over 10 acres planted state-wide. This overall acreage increased to 158 in 2018, and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) announced in April 2019, that over 2,500 acres will be planted this growing season.

Rockwool

Many Rockwool Ranson opponents would prefer to see the factory’s 100-plus-acre site (and surrounding land) used to position Jefferson County productively within the emerging hemp economy. ©Observer

The number of license holders increased from 46 in 2018 to almost 160 for 2019, including over 70 “processors” that will take the raw hemp plants and produce a value-added product. Most, if not all of these processors will produce CBD oil, which has emerged as something of an omnipresent miracle cure-all but is still restricted for use as a food or dietary supplement by the Food & Drug Administration since its approval as a drug in June 2018. The number of acres of hemp that will be grown in West Virginia this year places it on par with 2017 vegetable production acreage (~ 2,650).

What these numbers imply is that farmers in the state are converting a growing number of acres to hemp production and that a processing infrastructure is building, allowing post-production hemp to remain in the state. We are witnessing the circular bioeconomy starting to take root in the Mountain State.

Think Big, Act Boldly

The next evolutionary stage of this historic shift in agriculture is to build the “local” component. The Eastern Panhandle has had at least a handful of state-licensed hemp farmers in the area since 2017, but several essential actions remain to effectively build a local circular bioeconomy.

Hemp acreage must continue to increase in the Panhandle and more farmers need to register with WVDA for the 2020 growing season (applications will be accepted from October 1 through November 30, 2019). Processing infrastructure that reaches beyond CBD oil production is also needed. For example, companies that specialize in making construction materials, fiber for fabric production, or alternative fuels for wood-pellet stoves will be central to keeping production (and the money) local. These are all somewhat easy to implement on the small scale and don’t require millions in start-up capital.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the spokes of the agricultural system need to be connected through the hub that is the local bioeconomy. Connections must be established across the local producers of agricultural commodities (hemp, wheat, wool, fruit, etc.)—the companies and artisans that will transform these materials into value-added products (i.e. processors)—the local workforce and municipalities. This concept is already under consideration by members of the Jefferson County agricultural community, and might serve as the spark to a larger, more concerted effort.

Imagine buying a pair of long-lasting pants that were produced with minimal use of chemicals and dyes using locally grown and processed hemp fiber and alpaca wool. Imagine being able to visit the very spot your clothes were sourced from. Imagine exchanging the pants for money at your local hemporium, staffed by your friends and neighbors. Imagine driving down Route 9 in the summer and seeing fields of six-foot-tall hemp bound for locally made goods waving in the wind, instead of smokestacks. A local circular bioeconomy is within our sight, if we think big and act boldly.

 

— Erik is an environmental health scientist, regulatory analyst, entrepreneur, and advocate for the liberalization of cannabis laws, from Washington County, Maryland.

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