University of Virginia Wise research assistant Adam Jones, displays a bag of hemp seeds in the lab at the school in Wise, Va., Oct. 10, 2017. (Steve Helber, Associated Press)

Virginia’s experimental hemp research program still “a work in progress”

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is wrapping up its second year of a research program that allows farmers to grow hemp, a crop long banned because of its association with marijuana.

The 78 acres (32 hectares) planted across the state in 2017 was more than double the 2016 total.

But research reports and interviews with those involved in the program show the challenges that come with cultivating a plant that had not been grown in Virginia for decades.

“It’s still a work in progress, but there’s movement toward identifying those varieties that are going to be more successful in the Virginia soil, Virginia climate,” said Erin Williams, a senior policy analyst with the state agriculture department.

Here’s a look at the work in 2017 and what could be ahead in 2018.

What’s the deal with hemp?

Hemp is prized for its oils, seeds and fiber. It has hundreds of uses, including rope, clothing, foods, creams, soap and lotions.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it, but centuries later the plant’s cultivation was swept up in anti-drug efforts. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but marijuana is cultivated to dramatically increase THC, a psychoactive chemical that exists in trace amounts in hemp. Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

The crop got a reprieve in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, which defined hemp as distinct from marijuana and cleared the way for states to regulate it for research purposes, under certain conditions. In 2015, the General Assembly passed a bill signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe establishing a research program in Virginia.

During 2016, the first full year, three research universities planted approximately 37 acres (15 hectares) in industrial hemp, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In 2017, four research universities participated, planting 78 acres (32 hectares).

Advocates are hopeful hemp could eventually become a profitable cash crop used, in part, to replace tobacco.

What kind of research is going on?

James Madison University, the University of Virginia, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech have hemp research programs underway.

Some of the hemp was grown by farmers on privately owned land and some was grown on university-owned or managed property, according to an annual report from the agriculture department, which manages the program.

“What we’re all trying to learn is what actually works best,” said Dr. Michael Timko, the lead researcher at UVA. The work in 2017 helped narrow down details such as planting times and density, the best variety to use and how to manage different growing locations, he said. UVA, which is partnering with plant biotechnology company 22nd Century Group, is also conducting research into developing hemp varieties that have high cannabinoid levels for medicinal use but low THC levels, Timko said.

Another arm of the project taking place at the UVA-Wise campus in southwest Virginia is focused on finding varieties of hemp that could be used to clean up and reclaim abandoned coal mines through a process called phytoremediation. Limited rainfall and aggressive weed growth limited the growth of that crop in 2017, according to the annual report.

What’s next?

The agriculture department has been working on legislation for the General Assembly session that begins in January that would expand the research program and simplify the registration process for potential growers.

The bill would maintain the university research program but add the authority for the department to manage its own research as well, said Williams, who oversees the current licensing program.

The legislation will also include a registration option that would allow a third party to get the raw material from a farmer and process it, she said.

McAuliffe’s proposed budget, which will serve as a starting point for negotiations during the session, includes funding for two new positions at the department in order to staff an expanded research program.

“All of this is going to take some trial and error, but the learning curve is going quicker as we get more and more people involved,” Timko said.

The UVA team will have a bit of a head start in 2018, he added. The team collected seed material in 2017 that can be replanted in the new year, instead of having to import seeds from out of state, eliminating a logistical headache.

Overall, Timko said he’s excited about where the project is now, but noted how much more work there is to be done, including on researching the processing and manufacturing aspects of dealing with harvested hemp.

“Which farmer is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on seeds and plant hemp if he has no place to sell it or there’s no outlet for the manufacturing?” he said.