Virginia’s industrial hemp industry is experiencing resurgence, thanks to research efforts taking place across the state through higher education institutions like the University of Virginia (UVA), Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and James Madison University.
The research, which became possible in 2015 when Virginia legalized research in hemp cultivation, focuses on the best varieties of hemp to grow in the state’s different regions, ways to harvest it efficiently and its market potential.
UVA Enters Collaboration
In late 2016, UVA and 22nd Century Group Inc. – a plant biotechnology company that is a leader in tobacco harm reduction – signed a sponsored research agreement under which the company will invest approximately $1.1 million in research funding over a three-year period in studies aimed at creating unique industrial hemp varieties for growing in Virginia and similar legacy tobacco regions of the U.S.
The project is led by Dr. Michael P. Timko, a professor of biology and public health sciences at UVA, who says the university has partnered with farmers in different regions of the state to identify where certain varieties of industrial hemp are most likely to thrive.
“Virginia was a hemp-growing state for many years, but that ended in the 1930s, so we are basically going back to square one,” Timko says. “We’re trying to find out which industrial hemp varieties grow well here and what that growth will require. Working with farmers across the state allows us to see how different varieties of industrial hemp perform under various conditions, and we can then develop those varieties based on what we learn.”
In addition, Timko and his undergraduate and post-doctoral students are researching ways in which industrial hemp varieties and cannabinoid oils can be used for medicinal purposes. For example, Timko says he is working with epilepsy specialists at UVA’s medical school to determine industrial hemp’s efficacy in controlling the disease.
“With its many possible applications in various industries, industrial hemp has the potential to be a major contributor to Virginia’s economy,” Timko says.
Serving the State
Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Natural Resources and Environment are also researching industrial hemp, focusing on how the crop can best benefit Virginia.
Dr. Tom Hammett, associate dean for academic programs and a professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, says the university is working to develop practices that would enable farmers to grow industrial hemp commercially if approved by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Additionally, research is underway to determine if a value chain is in place that would ensure farmers could market and sell their products.
“We want to guarantee industrial hemp can be sold and processed in the state because we want to create jobs for our residents,” Hammett says.
Virginia Tech’s industrial hemp research extends to production, too, with on-campus plots of land growing different varieties of the crop under various conditions. Hammett says the findings from the agricultural trials will eventually be shared with farmers, processors and marketers.
“There are a seemingly countless number of ways industrial hemp can be used,” Hammett says. “A variety of medicinal and therapeutic products can be derived from industrial hemp, and the crop can be used to create animal bedding as it’s very absorbent. Industrial hemp can also be spread across fields because it’s an organic fertilizer, and its fiber can be used to create clothing. The key is figuring out how we can best suit the industrial hemp grown in Virginia to the products that will mean the most to producers and consumers.”
Virginia State University researchers are evaluating and identifying industrial hemp varieties for seed, seed oil and biofuel production that are adapted to Virginia’s climatic conditions. At James Madison, researchers are focusing on the Shenandoah Valley’s adaptability for growing industrial hemp. The crop may be a viable and profitable alternative to tobacco in the region.