Legal hemp in July? Not exactly

Marty Phipps, owner of Old Dominion Hemp, stands in front of the hemp he imported from Holland. He uses the hemp to make bedding for animals. Courtesy of Marty Phipps


Come July 1, Virginia will open the door for farmers to enter the fray of hemp farming; but in doing so, Virginia laws will be up against federal laws that ban the crop’s production.

Hemp production has been illegal at the federal and state levels because hemp is a variation of – and commonly associated with – cannabis sativa, the marijuana plant. Hemp carries trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, which is a Schedule I drug, the highest level of illegality, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and  shares the classification with heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.

Chase Milner works in the forefront of legalizing industrial hemp production as the regional director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition. He said that although hemp production will be legal in Virginia soon, to become licensed and obtain seeds through the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, farmers will likely need to be conducting research.

“The long and short of it, it’s way too much red tape to work through for a crop that can’t even get you high,” Milner said.

Proponents of hemp legalization say the plant has hundreds of legitimate industrial uses and could be a major agronomic driver with a lower environmental impact than other textile plants.

John Fike studies hemp farming techniques for Virginia Tech University, where he works as an associate professor in the crop and soil environmental sciences. He’s working on putting together some best practices for growing the plant.

“We have the legal capacity to grow it for research, as of 2015,” Fike said. “As of July 1, 2016, farmers can grow it for production.”

No matter how much progress is made on the research level, it may be a while before farmers can get the industry running. There is legislation working its way through Congress to remove hemp from the definition of marijuana, thereby legalizing its industrialization. However, Milner said it’s not moving as quickly as he’d like to see.

He added that he feels that Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has hindered the progress of legislation. Milner said Goodlatte is generally opposed to the legalization of hemp, which is significant given his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee.

In response to Milner’s claim, a staffer for Goodlatte said that the congressman feels there has not been enough research on industrial hemp production, which is why he supports the research at James Madison University and Virginia Tech.

At Virginia Tech, Fike is having problems with his crop because he can’t start planting. For one, he said the July 1 start date is too late in the year to test out good planting dates. Also, he – along with other researchers at James Madison University – are having trouble procuring seeds to plant.

Some hemp enthusiasts, however, have found avenues around current legislation. Marty Phipps sells hemp in the form of bedding for horses, chickens, ducks, lambs and goats. He started his business, Old Dominion Hemp, in 2015 after working as an advocate for the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

Phipps legally imports his hemp from Holland before converting it into bedding. He said it produces a longer lasting and more eco-friendly product than traditional pine bedding. While he said he is curious about the idea of growing his own hemp, he’s not planning on seeing seeds anytime soon and thinks he won’t be the only one without.

The seeds, he said, will need to be licensed before farmers can buy them. This licensure would need to occur at the federal level.

To Phipps, hemp could be something of a saving grace for Virginia agriculture. For one, it would be another commodity farmers can plant and sell to make a living. He said its potential is so high that other countries are proving to be sluggish in sending over seeds for farmers.

“The U.S. is going to pass this law and hemp is going to move its way into the market,” he said. “It’s going to make a dent. Other countries realize this so they’re hesitant in presenting us a seed so we don’t destroy their hemp export market.”

Along with fiscal help, Phipps said the plant has considerable environmental potential as well. He said growing it is good for the soil, it’s a tough enough plant that it won’t require the same pesticides that cotton does, and it can be used as a bedding to repurpose animal waste into manure, which a typical pine bedding cannot do because of its acidity.

On the other hand, Fike is more cynical about hemp’s potency. He said supporters boast the crop’s $600 million it could introduce to the industry, but this is an iota of the staggering $100 billion agriculture industry.

Additionally, he said legalization won’t be the gold rush some proponents imagine. He noted that while hemp may be somewhat legal for growing purposes, both efficient growing practices and infrastructure to turn the raw plant into a commercial product are likely to sag behind expectations.

“There are a lot of questions we need to get answers to before there can be a full progression of the process,” Fike said.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com