After harvest, hemp research continues

Male and female hemp plants are shown, Courtesy photo

With the first legal hemp crop grown in Virginia in decades out of the ground, researchers are now working on their next steps with the harvest and planning for next year’s growing season.

Mike Renfroe, a professor of biology at James Madison University, studied the crop over the summer. He planted 30 acres of hemp spread over three sites at different elevations and with different plant densities.

He said at some of his sites he found the plant could stave off weeds and pests on its own, without any herbicide or pesticide use.

Along with agronomic research, Renfroe said he also focused on finding ways to use the crop in a practical sense. Thus, after the harvest, the researchers pressed oil of the hemp seed to be used as biodiesel fuel for farm equipment, used the leftover cake as bedding for animal feed, and used the rest as livestock bedding.

Given its simplicity and usefulness, Renfroe said he hopes to see hemp be legally separated from marijuana and delisted as a Schedule-I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency, given that hemp contains less than .3 percent of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana.

Hemp plants are harvested at Virginia Tech this fall. Courtesy photo by B. Walden

“Were hoping that hemp will prove to be a low-input, high-yield crop that will open opportunities for Virginia farmers,” he said. “It has strong potential as a crop for smaller farms looking to replace tobacco growing or something like that.”

As it stands now, hemp cultivation in Virginia is only legal for researchers who are licensed by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences.

At Virginia Tech, professor John Fike grew hemp on a more modest plot of land than Renfroe to conduct research on best growing practices for farmers when (and if) the government legalizes commercial hemp production.

He said he started out with the research to find and identify some preferred varieties of the crop, along with their agronomic management best practices. He said among other findings he found the crop to be sensitive to insect pressures.

“It is going to be subject to a lot of insect pressure. Wildlife will use it a great deal,” he said. “If we don’t want to spray it …We will need alternative management practices to avoid that. However, it was not particularly challenged by weeds in the environments where we worked.”

Because Fike planted his seeds fairly late in the season, he said next year will be a better year to study production techniques when he can get a jump on things in May. He said he plans to study when the crop should be planted, how long its grow cycle will last, and what its environmental effects are.

Of the latter, he said he saw evidence this year that hemp can break up pest cycles with adjacent crops and can possibly be used as a natural pesticide.

While the research is at its preliminary stages, both Renfroe and Fike are pleased with how things turned out and excited to hone methodology last year.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or