RICHMOND — Marty Phipps started a business this year selling an innovative type of bedding for horses and small animals — a shredded substance that absorbs liquids, resists microbes and cuts down on smell.
But because the product is made with hemp, which is the same plant species as marijuana and is tightly controlled by the government, Phipps has to import it from Europe. He figures his costs are double what they would be if hemp were an ordinary crop grown locally.
Virginia has joined a nationwide movement to change that equation. This year, for the first time in about 70 years, a group of Virginia farmers harvested a small crop of hemp. It was permitted strictly for research, but a growing chorus — including politicians on the left and right — is pushing to cash in on a versatile crop that can be put to thousands of commercial uses and bring back lost jobs.
“It’s pretty ridiculous, actually,” that it’s taken this long, said Del. Joseph R. Yost, a Republican from Blacksburg who sponsored a bill in last year’s General Assembly to set up the hemp research program. “I represent a rural area in the southwest, and it’s viewed as possibly something that could help replace the tobacco industry and manufacturing industry.”
Yost’s bill, and a companion measure on the state Senate side, passed unanimously. Another bill this year endorsed the industrial use of hemp.
Three universities signed up to participate in the research program — Virginia Tech, James Madison and Virginia State — and the University of Virginia has joined for next year.
Each school got seeds, which had to be ordered from European countries and then cleared by federal inspectors. Everyone involved with the research, professors and farmers alike, had to go through federal background checks to handle what is considered a controlled substance. Drug Enforcement Administration agents inspected the state’s seed laboratory.
The teams planted about 37 acres on plots in six counties in June, then harvested it in October. Each university sent the state detailed reports of their findings, but the bottom line was pretty straightforward. “Overall, I think the researchers have a positive outlook on hemp’s potential in Virginia,” said Erin Williams, senior policy analyst for the state agriculture department.
This is not to be confused with marijuana’s potential in Virginia, which is much slimmer. Hemp and marijuana plants look the same, but hemp has far less of the chemical — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — that gives marijuana users a high. Experts say you would never plant the two together because they would cross-pollinate, and THC levels would plummet in the pot. Plus hemp is cultivated for its seeds; pot growers prefer that the plants put their energy into creating buds, not seeds.
People get confused about the difference. Phipps, for instance, was making a delivery with his father in Loudoun County when a car full of young guys pulled up next to their truck. Seeing the name of the Charlottesville-based business painted on the side — Old Dominion Hemp — “these guys start saluting me and giving high-fives out the window,” Phipps said. “And my Dad’s like, ‘They kind of don’t realize this is animal bedding, do they?’ ”
He would argue that federal law is similarly confused, that hemp does not belong in the same category as marijuana. It took a special provision in the 2014 federal farm bill to permit states to allow academic research of hemp cultivation.
Now two bills are pending in Congress that would open the door to full-fledged agricultural and industrial use.
Those bills have powerful supporters. Both Republican senators from Kentucky, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, have urged passage. And Kentucky has been especially aggressive about exploiting the federal research loophole to rapidly expand cultivation, with almost 4,500 acres in production this year.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who represents the Harrisonburg area, has visited JMU’s research site and favors expansion. “Now it is time to move from research to commercial production in the United States,” he said.
But Virginia supporters worry that the bluegrass state is getting a head start.
“We could be way more aggressive the way Kentucky is being aggressive,” said Jason Amatucci, founder and executive director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition. Colorado is going even further, he said, challenging federal law by cultivating not just hemp but marijuana. “But Virginia does not choose to take that risk,” he said.
Amatucci, 41, learned about hemp while working in his family’s boxwood business, which is based in Charlottesville. He formed the coalition in 2012 after becoming alarmed about the state of agriculture in Virginia.
About 90 percent of Virginia farms are owned by individuals or families, but the average age for farmers is nearly 60, according to state data. As old cash crops such as tobacco continue to decline, owners of small farms need alternatives to thrive and to bring in new generations, Amatucci said.
“We’re just trying to get hemp to be an option,” he said. After all, there’s already a booming market for hemp products. Americans spend more than $580 million annually on hemp-based goods, according to a report last year from the Congressional Research Service. Hemp is used in a variety of products, including fabrics, paper, construction materials, automobile parts and nutritional supplements.
Much of the consumer money goes outside U.S. borders — hemp is an established crop in more than 30 other countries, according to the CRS report.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Hemp was a crucial product in Colonial-era America, where it was used in sails, rope, clothing, paper and other items. Supporters love to haul out quotes from Thomas Jefferson and other luminaries about the virtues of hemp. It was cultivated in this country through World War II but fell victim to postwar drug enforcement.
The efforts to revive the crop in Virginia are somewhat ironic, said Yost, who aside from being a delegate is the executive director of the Giles County Historical Society.
In 1619, the Virginia colony passed a law requiring farmers to grow hemp.
“Hopefully, it’s making a comeback,” Yost said.