Now that political tides are shifting in favor of industrial hemp, Eric Mathis would like to see West Virginia seize an economic opportunity.
“We’re seeing a lot of trends in green technologies,” said Mathis, president of the West Virginia Hemp Industries Association.
Glass, plastics and an assortment of other materials can be made with hemp, Mathis said.
The ideal scenario in West Virginia for Mathis would be to work with existing companies like Toyota, as well as attracting new ones.
“We can build the casings as well as a lot of the other component parts for the car interior and exterior from bio-plastics,” Mathis said.
Hemp has a lot of food applications, too, Mathis said. “Think of all the applications of soy products or almond products,” he said. “You can replicate that with hemp and it also has a lot of additional nutritional qualities that its competitors like soy and almond do not have.”
More than 25,000 products can be made from hemp, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council.
Last year, West Virginia lawmakers asked the state Department of Agriculture to come up with rules that would allow farmers to grow industrial hemp. The department did so, and lawmakers approved the rules in this year’s session. As of Friday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin still had to sign off on the bill.
West Virginia’s rules would lay out guidelines for farmers about how to register with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, a fee to grow, agreements for inspections, fees for research and development of industrial hemp, the type of hemp to be grown and distributed and legal tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, levels. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. West Virginia mandates THC levels in hemp be at 1 percent or less to be considered an agricultural crop.
Buddy Davidson, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said he expects to have rules in the next few weeks. “We’ll go from there,” he said.
Mathis hopes West Virginia follows Kentucky’s lead by encouraging farmers to grow hemp and creating an infrastructure such as drying plants and processing plants, so economically stressed central Appalachia can become an industrial hemp hub.
In Pike County, Kentucky, Mathis said, his organization’s counterpart there is already working with coal and reclamation companies, which he would not name, to grow industrial hemp on existing and legacy mine sites, Mathis said.
“It’s not theoretical; we’re actually doing it,” Mathis said.
He believes it’s important for central Appalachia to act now and take advantage of market forces, and sees the region as becoming the central hub for value-added goods from hemp. American companies are already using hemp seed, fiber and oil as raw materials, including Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and Ford Motors.
“The number one barrier to economic diversity in central Appalachia is its topography — its lack of flat land,” Mathis said. “Land would make central Appalachia not the ideal area but the legacy of the Chemical Valley, a lot of the infrastructure around producing electricity from coal and natural gas, make this area a very attractive region for building up more of those high-quality materials around bio-plastics.”
Also, hemp takes less land than many other crops do to produce an income for a farmer.
Clark Sheldon has about 60 acres of land in Putnam County, about 10 of which are cleared for farming. But he wants to have 30 acres cleared for hemp production in the future.
Sheldon’s farm is home to a variety of animals, including goats and a mini horse. Currently, the farm operates as a rescue farm for farm animals in need. Sheldon believes growing and cultivating hemp would not only diversify his operation but generate more revenue than what he gets from his goats.
“Hemp has a tremendous future, not just for West Virginia,” Sheldon said. “It’s a crop that can be properly introduced and supported, which will create a lot of jobs and not just on the farm.”
William Rice, another Putnam County resident, grew up on a farm and used to grow tobacco as his cash crop. He sees the potential in hemp.
“When I hear the profit margin on hemp, that’s a good margin on it,” Rice said. “That’s better than I can do on corn or beans.”
Growing and cultivate hemp is much more machinery intensive than labor intensive, Sheldon said.
Hemp seeds are drilled and planted into the ground very close together. It’s ready for harvest three to four months later.
Both Sheldon and Rice worry about the start-up costs of diving into the industrial hemp market, but agree it could be worth it in the long run if the initial costs are recovered within the first five years.
Sheldon expects to make about $250 an acre for high-quality hemp, but that’s not all that entices him. He likes that the crop needs about half as much water as wheat, doesn’t need many pesticides and leads to products that are often biodegradable.
But the two farmers really like the idea of hemp bringing more people back to the farm.
“Family farms could get a foothold in hemp and have a way to make a living on the farm without having to go work elsewhere,” Sheldon said. “Almost every farmer I know has to work another job.”
Rice sees hemp as a potential cash crop that would allow his grandchildren to return to the farm and earn a living.
They stressed the need for cooperation between the government, farmers and industry.
Charles Lewis, assistant chairman of the West Virginia Veterans Coalition, also sees opportunity in hemp. There are more than 250 members of the West Virginia Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture. Lewis envisions cooperation among veterans throughout the state working on hemp farms.
“Industrial hemp has been demonized because of its association with marijuana,” Lewis said. “It’s like comparing beets to radishes — they look the same but they’re two different things.”
He added it’s difficult for many veterans to maintain jobs once returning, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Being out in nature, working with your hands, you’ve got that gratification of seeing something grow and produced by your efforts,” Lewis said. “That can be extremely therapeutic and give a sense of purpose.”
Reach Caitlin Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5113 or follow @caitlincookWV on Twitter.