Is the crop a future opportunity for Rappahannock farmers?
Off the Grid Farm Manager Elizabeth Melson and her daughter at the Hemp Harvest Festival in October 2020.
The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 legalized hemp farming on a federal level, ending 48 years of hemp prohibition. Soon afterwards processors, growers, and hemp advocates formed the Rappahannock Hemp Cooperative (RHC) with the aspiration of educating and aiding local farmers interested in industrial hemp farming. Nearly three years later, the RHC, now an LLC business, is in the process of transitioning into a nonprofit organization and will soon be known as the Rappahannock Hemp Collective.
“The main objective as a collective is shared resources, knowledge, education [and] workshops,” says Cherl Crews, one of the eight board members of the RHC.
Their future goals include creating a space for large scale storage and having a directory of growers to know who is growing what and for which purposes. The collective also hopes to help purchase hemp processing equipment that would otherwise be unaffordable for local farmers.
Hemp is used to create a variety of items including food products, animal feed, biofuel, textiles, paper, plastic, CBD oil and building materials.
“That’s the key about hemp, it’s a renewable, sustainable crop,” Crews says. “And we can absolutely make anything that we use out of it.”
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis sativa plant. It differs from its relative marijuana plant because it may not exceed 0.3 percent THC, the psycho-active component in Cannabis.
The Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services (VDACS) requires hemp farmers to apply for registration to grow hemp. The application fee is $150 and must be renewed annually. Any hemp farmer can be subject to testing by VDACS to ensure the THC content does not exceed the legal limit.
A handful of Rappahannock farmers have taken a crack at hemp farming. Mattie Leto, a local specialist in animal chiropractic and a black belt Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor who also practices regenerative farming, endeavored to grow hemp for two seasons.
“The main thing that drew me to it as an athlete was to extract the CBD oil from it,” Leto says. “Because it has such a profound effect on systemic inflammation.”
Not unlike any other type of farming, growing hemp presents its own learning curve. Pests and insects in the area have been known to infest the buds. Deer and other wildlife can decimate the crop by consuming it if proper fencing is not in place.
Harvesting in late September before the budworms could infest the hemp and utilizing his farm dogs to guard the crop, Leto found hemp easy to grow.
But after two seasons Leto discontinued his efforts, because, in his words, “It doesn’t produce any income.” Leto adds that, “If you grew it from seed to store, I think you would make money.”
Elizabeth Melson is the farm manager for Off the Grid in Sperryville and a board member of the Virginia Hemp Coalition. Melson grows hemp on the farm at Off the Grid to use in products in the restaurant including salves, teas, juices, and smoothies with hemp powder.
Dried hemp flowers, pictured here, provide the vast majority of the plant’s nutritional value. Off the Grid uses hemp powder in juices, teas, smoothies and a variety of products in the restaurant’s store.
Hemp is rich in minerals, vitamins, and nutrients that provide a variety of health benefits including improved digestion and reduced risk of heart disease. Going into her third season of hemp farming, Melson suggests having an equal amount of space for indoor drying as for growing. Melson has been an advocate for hemp since 2016.
“Hemp can feed us, fuel us, house us, clothe us … and can medicate us,” Melson says. “All parts of the plants are useful in some way.”
Hemp has far to go before returning to its former glory as one of Virginia’s most prosperous crops prior to prohibition. With the means of processing in place and the help of the Rappahannock Hemp Collective, hemp farming could be a profitable opportunity for Rappahannock farmers.
Sign up for the C-19 Daily Update, a free newsletter delivered to your email inbox every morning.