The era of industrial hemp will came to West Virginia this week as hemp seeds were planted legally for the first time since the end of World War II. Industrial hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant (aka Cannabis sativa) with very small amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC, but is still regulated like marijuana in the eyes of the federal government. The first planting of hemp will be in Morgantown as part of a West Virginia University research study that will investigate the plant’s ability to remove contaminants from the soil using a process known as phytoremediation.
In 1938, hemp was named by Popular Science magazine as The Next Billion Dollar Crop because of the nearly 25,000 products that could be derived from the plant. Some of those industrial applications that are used today are bioplastics, building materials, insulation, and paper. Some European automobile manufacturers, such as BMW, have started using molded plastic parts from hemp for car interiors. The second part of the WVU research study is to explore the use of hemp for these industrial application following its use in phytoremediation.
Agri Carb Electric Corporation Chief Executive Officer Don Smith II sees the impact that this study would bring, “There are a lot of contaminated brownfields throughout West Virginia that people find too expensive to cleanup. We can be a complement to the state’s coal and gas industries by using a hemp cash crop to revitalize spoiled lands. This research should interest every post-industrial community in West Virginia to invest (with grants) and monetize what is now considered worthless.”
The WVU research project will not be the only hemp planted in the state in 2016. Following in the footsteps of well-known hemp farmers and politicians, George Washington and John Adams, two West Virginia political candidates will be planting commercial hemp plots. Mike Manypenny (D), running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, will be planting a hemp plot in Grafton, and understands the historic significance, “I am excited to be the first Congressional candidate to be a hemp farmer since Thomas Jefferson.” J. Morgan Leach (D), running for WV House of Delegates, will be planting a hemp plot in Parkersburg, followed by other hemp plots including one in West Virginia’s birthplace and first capital, Wheeling, as well as in Pocahontas and Berkeley counties.
The U.S. imports more hemp than any other country in the world from countries like Canada and China – the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2015 was about $573 million. Leach, who is also the executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, sees how hemp can bring jobs in an economic downturn, “We want to encourage commercial growers throughout the state because the demand for domestic hemp will continue to increase. Hemp can be catalyst for agriculture in West Virginia providing farmers with a high yield cash crop, but the real impact will come in the downstream industries that will provide jobs in both the industrial and energy sectors of the state.”
But, commercial farming of hemp this year was nearly prevented – until Apr. 1 when Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill presented to him by the Legislature that would have rolled back the state’s commercial industrial hemp industry. WV Senate Bill 159, a rules bundle bill, would have changed the basic nature of the state’s program from commercial in nature to “research only” in nature by only allowing such work to be done in conjunction with a “higher institution of learning”, such as West Virginia University, even though commercial farming of hemp is legal in nearly every industrialized country in the world, including China, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and more.
Agri Carb Electric Corporation Chief Operating Officer Erik Janus sees a greater vision. “The science is there. Hemp has long had the potential to create sustainable products that are preferable to many current technologies; however, what is really exciting is what we can do with hemp using the technologies of the future – such as genomics, nanotechnology and 3-D printing.”
Agri Carb Electric Corporation announced its presence at the Strategic Cannabis Conference 2016, held Mar. 17 at the West Virginia University College of Law. The company seeks to establish infrastructure in West Virginia to process industrial hemp grown in the region and is currently seeking funding partners and collaborators to achieve its vision.
West Virginia University has recently joined the likes of institutions like Yale and Johns Hopkins with its new classification as an R1 research-activity school. Institutions that fall into the R1 category are noted as having the highest research activity, and are sorted every five years by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. WVU recently garnered national attention for its part in uncovering the Volkswagen emission scandal.