STAUNTON, Va. (News Leader) -- Industrial hemp is one step closer to being removed from the controlled substance list, thanks to a vote from the U.S. Senate.
That could be a major game changer for farmers across the nation.
The language of the Farm Bill would allow for legal cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp. The bill passed in the Senate late Thursday.
The Farm Bill is a wide-range bill that includes agriculture and food programs, with industrial hemp legalization just one small part of it.
On the federal level, industrial hemp still has one hurdle to overcome — the Senate Conference Committee — before President Donald Trump signs the bill.
But here in Virginia, starting July 1, all you have to do is register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
State hemp bill
Previously in Virginia, a farmer had to get with a university to start a research program in order to grow hemp. With that, a farmer could grow it but not sell it.
The point of the research is to see how to adapt current farm equipment and practices to incorporate hemp growing.
Hemp is being grown locally by two farmers, Glenn Rodes and Brian Walden, in Port Republic at Riverhill Farms. They grow a combined 10 acres of hemp — five at Riverhill and five at Walden’s farm outside of Charlottesville.
The two farmers are growing hemp through a research program with James Madison University.
This Virginia state bill is a game changer for the state, according to Jason Amatucci, founder of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.
"We do not have to go through universities anymore, but we can still work with them if we like," he said. "Anybody in Virginia can apply to VDAC for a license for industrial hemp farming or processing."'
The federal bill just doubles down on what Virginia has already done, Amatucci said.
"It increases our opportunities and increases our legalities and commercial opportunities," he said. "It's a good thing."
On the federal level
Under the Controlled Substance Act, hemp is considered a Schedule 1 drug. To get things moving beyond research, hemp needs to be taken off the controlled substances list.
In 2005, legislation was first introduced, but it never got anywhere. This year, it was introduced in the house in July, then went onto the Committee on Energy and Commerce and to the Committee on the Judiciary.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced in March a major push to legalize hemp, according to a USA Today article.
The bill would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 was placed into the most recent Farm Bill.
"This is really great news, we've been working on this for a really long time," Amatucci said. "We've never been able to get it to committee, but this year we were able to through Mitch McConnell to get this Hemp Farming Act into the Senate Farm Bill. It did not make it into the House Farm Bill."
The Farm Bill is set to go onto the Senate Conference Committee — where there is a small chance industrial hemp legalization could be removed from the language.
"I've got word that Republican leadership is not trying to pick hemp as a battle on this conference committee," Amatucci said. "I think it looks really good that it will have the hemp provisions and amendments in it when it gets to the president's desk."
If a reasonable hemp bill gets signed into law it should remove any confusion about moving hemp products across state lines, Rodes said.
"This will open up market options," he said. "Getting seed has been time consuming and costly. Hopefully with reasonable regulatory policies the cost and availability of seed should improve. And the biggest thing is that companies will invest in processing facilities that will create markets for hemp farmers."
States will have to submit a plan for implementation to the Secretary of Agriculture.
"Here the Secretary of Agriculture holds a lot of cards with the hemp industry. Our state would have to give a proposal to them and they would have to approve it or deny it with the stipulations of the bill," Amatucci said. "There's things in there about testing and licensing and all sorts of things. It's a good step, it's not just unregulated and they're throwing it out there like it's the wild west and people can do whatever they want. It's codified and regulated with federal bill. It's definitely a move forward and will help our industry and help us move forward in Virginia."
What is hemp?
The common misconception with hemp is that it’s marijuana. Technically, hemp is part of the same species as marijuana — Cannabis sativa. The big difference between the two is hemp won’t get you high.
Hemp can be used for fiber, oil, food — basically, the entire crop can be used in one form or another.
Think rope, fabric, bedding, insulation, food products like flour, oil and seeds, and even biodiesel.
What Rodes and Walden observed through their research was the plant grew 8 feet in 30 days and at 60 days the average yield was 1,000 pounds of seed per acre.
To give perspective, corn’s season lasts about 90 to 120 days. Though the total volume of seed is low comparatively to other grains, the wholesale market value of the seed, if you could sell it, is upwards of $40 per bushel, Walden said. Corn in Virginia can go for around $5 a bushel, soybeans around $9 to $10 a bushel.
Once the crop is up and established, they found it requires no pesticides and no herbicides.
Potentially, farmers could be making $200 to $5,000 per acre by growing hemp, Walden said.