CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Although hemp was federally legalized in 2014, the industry didn’t take off in West Virginia until years after. Part of the reason was that the West Virginia Department of Agriculture only started taking applications and licensing farmers and researchers to grow hemp in 2016. But even after that, it was tough for both farmers and researchers to grow successfully.

Seeds

Hemp seeds had to come from overseas since the United States Drug Enforcement Administration did not allow the transportation of hemp across state lines. It wasn’t until 2019 that the DEA allowed for the interstate commerce of hemp.

Dr. Louis McDonald, Professor of Environmental Soil Chemistry and Soil Fertility at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design, was fifth in line to be licensed to grow hemp in 2016. But before seeds could be bought within the United States, it was harder to get results from the research.

“In the early days, the varieties were not very uniform, and so our first experiments out at the Organic Farm, we’d have the same bag of seed, and we’d have plants that were four feet tall and plants that were 16 feet tall,” Dr. McDonald explained, “I mean, you just can’t do small-scale research if two plants next to each other don’t look the same, right? That’s no experiment. You can’t report on that, and you certainly can’t do it again next year.”

Dr. McDonald said that the seeds and seed breeding is much better now, but back then, not only was seed expensive, but the seed was sitting out for too long in the shipping process.

“We were getting the seed from Europe, and they were sitting on the dock while DEA inspected it in New Jersey for who knows how long. It has a lot of oil in it, probably going rancid, and so the germination was terrible,” recalled Dr. McDonald.

CBD boom…and crash

Soon after farmers were allowed to buy seeds within the country, there was a boom in the CBD market. West Virginia went from issuing around 40 hemp licenses a year to having over 400 applicants in 2020, and this growth wasn’t just seen in the Mountain State but across the country. But just as fast as the CBD market soared, it crashed due to an oversaturation in the market. There were too many people growing CBD hemp and not enough people who wanted to buy the CBD.

“You don’t go twice a week to the grocery store and buy something containing CBD. There are people using it, yes, but it’s not a daily or weekly commodity that you buy all the time,” explained Dr. Michael Gutensohn, Associate Professor of Horticulture at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, who also does research on hemp plants, “So, there’s a market, but it’s a somewhat limited market.”

The price per percentage point, per pound for CBD dropped from $10 in the beginning of 2019 to 50 cents by the end of 2020. WVDA went from issuing 311 licenses in 2020 to 170 licenses in 2021 and 100 this year.

Lack of infrastructure

After a hemp plant is harvested, it usually must be processed in some way. Perhaps it needs to be distilled to be turned into a CBD oil, or it needs to be mixed with lime to create hempcrete. Processes like those need to have a robust supply chain, and McDonald said we’re missing the middle man.

“It’s that chicken and egg problem. You have to have a market, you have to have the processing, and then you have to have the growers, and they all have to converge,” McDonald explained.

He said he thinks that was part of the problem with the CBD market—there were not enough places to sell raw hemp flower as more people started growing.

“It’s really hard to establish new agricultural commodity markets, and I really feel for those growers trying to get it going. I mean, their hearts are in the right place. They’re really struggling to try and find ways to make their farms profitable,” said McDonald, “But if there’s no dependable market—there’s no dependable processing for them to sell their crops to—it’s really, really hard.”

Tiffany Fess, a local hemp farmer and graduate student at WVU, sells her hemp plants wholesale to places like Whispering Winds Naturals in Bridgeport. Fess said that was a big factor in her success.

“I think that we’ve done a really good job of maintaining our place in the market. I wouldn’t say that it’s been a home run every year, and in fact, I don’t think any of our years have been the same,” Fess explained, “Our business model has always been changing, and that’s really just the result of the evolving market and market changes and consumer demand and how it goes up and down. But I’m real proud of us for making it this long. A lot of farmers did not make it this long, unfortunately.”

On the other hand, Joy and Hemp, a hemp farm in Morgantown, does most of the work to get a finished product themselves. They said that while they do take their plants to someone else for the initial extraction of the CBD oil, the rest is done in-house. Those processes require chemistry knowledge and lab equipment.

Web Extra: Patrick Kyle from Joy and Hemp explains the processes involved to get a finished product

The deal with THC

Another issue hemp farmers face is trying to keep their crop under the 0.3% Total THC limit. The number comes from a book written by a Canadian botanist named Ernest Small in 1979. The book makes a number of suggestions on ways to classify different types of cannabis. In Small’s studies, he distinguished “drug” and “non-drug” cannabis by the 0.3% threshold. Small wrote in an email interview in 1999 to Robert C. Clarke, an author and cannabis researcher:

“As a specialist in plant classification, it has been extremely gratifying to have so much of the world apply our simple classification in a practical way. But I would caution that 100% separation of groupings within species is rarely achievable, and this is the case for Cannabis sativa. Because of seasonal and diurnal fluctuations in THC content, a given plant could have more or less THC than 0.3% at different times… It should also be appreciated that the level of 0.3% is well under the concentration of 0.9% THC considered minimal for psychotropic effects by some authorities.”

In other words, THC content in the plant varies, and it’s difficult for a farmer to make sure that their plant won’t go over the limit in many cases. When a hemp farmer is ready to harvest, WVDA visits the farm and samples the crops. If a plant goes over 0.3%, called “going hot,” they are required by law to destroy the plant and the product is lost, even though the threshold is way below what would be required for intoxication.

“[Hemp farmers going over the legal THC limit] is not common-common, but it’s common enough to be a problem, to put it that way,” explained Dr. Gutensohn, “We’re in pretty close contact with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and these folks that are in charge of hemp testing, and yes, it is an issue. Not every time, and not in a huge number of cases, but it is a problem, and it’s still a little bit unpredictable when that happens.”

West Virginia University keeps its hemp research plants in a locked greenhouse.

That’s one of the things that Dr. Gutensohn is studying at WVU—what environmental factors might go in to higher THC levels, and what can farmers do to prevent their crop from going hot. Basically, THC is a form of self-defense for the plant—but against what?

“Cannabinoids are part of this chemical arsenal that plants are producing, and so, not too surprisingly, if they’re exposed to some of these stressers, they will do something about it, and they may produce more [THC],” said Dr. Gutensohn, “That’s the logic we’re looking into because once we can understand what might trigger these spikes in THC content, then we might be able to give growers recommendations.”

Fess said for her, it’s all about the seed. Genetics play a major role in the THC level of the plants, so she spends extra on seeds from a trustworthy seed breeder in Oregon—to the tune of two dollars per seed.

“It’s sort of a sticker shock, but in the end, it’s worth it because I just have less fear and stress about going over, and you don’t want to lose six acres of hemp because you’re 0.4% and the state says you have to be 0.3% THC,” said Fess, “It’s pretty sad when that happens, but it happens a lot, and the reason it happens is because people are seeking out cheaper sources of seed.”

The hemp farming community

Despite West Virginia’s conservative reputation, it was one of the first states to pass legislation to create the framework for legalizing hemp. The Industrial Hemp Development Act in West Virginia was signed in 2002 and allowed farmers to grow industrial hemp with a max THC content of 1%. Language in the bill suggests that it was largely an attempt to draw business to the state.

The Legislature finds that the development and use of industrial hemp can serve to improve the state’s economy and agricultural vitality and that the production of industrial hemp can be regulated so as not to interfere with the strict regulation of controlled substances in the state.

Senate Bill 447, West Virginia Legislature

“The Legislature finds that the development and use of industrial hemp can serve to improve the state’s economy and agricultural vitality and that the production of industrial hemp can be regulated so as not to interfere with the strict regulation of controlled substances in the state,” the 2002 bill reads.

However, West Virginia did not create a program for growing hemp until after the 2014 Farm Bill was passed.

“I think it was kind of a preemptive legislation. I think they were anticipating hemp moving forward, and it took a little longer than that,” said John Moredock, Hemp Program Coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, “So it wasn’t until the 2014 USDA Farm Bill that it became federally legal to farm hemp in the US. So, once the 2014 Farm Bill was passed, we already had legislation in place thanks to our Commissioner that we were able to begin licensing.”

So while the 2002 bill was only fully actualized in recent years, one thing the people we interviewed could agree on is that people who grow hemp in West Virginia have a solid community of people willing to help. Joy and Hemp said that their ability to help other farms and help others start growing hemp is one thing that they’re really proud of.

“You kind of have to, especially as a small farmer. It’s really hard to afford everything,” Patrick explained, “Like having our oil turned into distillate, for example. It’s generally a 50/50 split if you’re lucky, so us being able to turn our friends’ oil into distillate, we got to keep a portion of it. They kept a large portion of it. We’re able to make products for them that they’re not able to do themselves, you know. They can’t really afford the equipment, so we do need to help each other.”

On the government side, there were positive things said about the WVDA’s hemp program. For example, Moredock explained that the application is meant to be simple enough to not be a barrier for entry, but in-depth enough to help farmers develop a plan.

“We’ll work with you, too. If your application is missing something, we’ll just work with you until it’s complete. So we don’t ever throw their license out once we’ve received it. We could license somebody right now if they’re missing something and they got it to us.”

The application is three pages long and the licensing period typically starts in October and extends for two months.

The future of hemp

While hemp farmers have their struggles now, the excitement of what the future may hold for hemp is what draws and keeps a lot of people in the industry. Despite the volatility of the CBD market, there’s still hope that it will stabilize.

“I would encourage farmers to incorporate it into other farms that are already existing, and what I mean by that is, it’s a good rotational crop. It’s a good additive crop to a small farm,” said Fess, “It is actually very valuable, but if you’re going to put all your eggs in the hemp basket, I don’t necessarily recommend that right now. But I think as the market stabilizes, which it has slowly, that it could be a nice extra income crop for some small farmers around here.”

Textiles, CBD, and hemp oil are the classic uses that are more well-known, but hemp has thousands of uses besides those. Hemp is being looked at for carbon nanofibers that could be used in car production, essential oils for perfumes or food flavoring, and animal feed. The oil can withstand cold temperatures, so it’s being used in jet fuel to keep it from solidifying.

This is funded research, and that gives you a certain stamp of approval. Funding agencies are willing to give money for this research, and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t believe that there’s a market developing that it makes sense to invest into.

Dr. Michael Gutensohn, West Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design

Because hemp is good at extracting metals from soil, Dr. McDonald is studying how the plant responds to different metals and if they can be used to clean up contaminated sites in an economical way.

“If we can get it to take up metals, and then we can put those metals into building products, then we can get it absolutely out of the natural ecosystem where it’s no longer going to be an exposure to kids or the food chain or wildlife or anything like that, right?” Dr. McDonald enthused.

But at the same time, for some types of research, researchers have to play a catch-up game in order to get up to speed because the plant was illegal for so long. Dr. Gutensohn explained that there are few plants within the family that hemp belongs to, so being able to borrow techniques from other plants is also tough—a common practice in the genetic side of research. But, as those things develop—as they get over this one-time hurdle–more uses and tools, especially for breeding, could become available.

“This is funded research, and that sort of gives you a certain stamp of approval,” said Dr. Gutensohn, “Funding agencies are willing to give some money for this research, and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t believe that there’s a market developing that it makes sense to invest into.”