Virginia Tech is starting an industrial hemp research program as a result of a 2014 state law and the establishment of a new initiative by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Our research abilities, when combined with Virginia Cooperative Extension and our Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, can help this new initiative grow and benefit the state,” said Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Hemp has a long history in Virginia dating back to the 1600s, when the law stated that Jamestown farmers must grow it because the fiber’s many uses were so vital to the colony. In the colonial era, farmers could pay their taxes with hemp.

Fourteen states have established industrial hemp programs and are exploring how the plant can boost economic development. United States retail sales of hemp-based products could exceed $300 million annually, according to industry reports. More than 55,700 metric tons of hemp are produced around the world, so this program provides an opportunity for Virginia to enter a global market.

Virginia Tech’s industrial hemp research program

Industrial hemp is a plant with many beneficial uses.  Industrial hemp has absolutely no use as a recreational drug and is genetically different from marijuana, even though the two plants are the same species – Cannabis sativa. Hemp varieties are non-psychoactive and contain very low levels of THC. In addition, all industrial hemp must be tested to ensure it contains concentrations of THC that are less than what is allowed under federal law.

Industrial hemp is considered a dual-purpose crop and can be grown for  fiber, grain/oil or both. Hemp fiber is used in clothing, rope, construction materials, carpeting, and in the automobile industry. Its seed oil has the potential as an alternative energy source and as an ingredient in pharmaceuticals. It can also be used as cooking oil and in snacks. Beyond production and processing, the university may also explore value added products and the economics of hemp production and how it may benefit the commonwealth.

Virginia Tech is planning to grow hemp for research studies starting in the spring of 2016. Seeds are being procured from the U.S.D.A. by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The small plot studies will be conducted on land that is owned or managed by Virginia Tech. This research is expected to occur around the Blacksburg campus as well as at some of the 11 Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Centers located throughout the state.

Researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will begin to evaluate agronomic factors such as optimum soil, climate, and fertility conditions for hemp production in the Commonwealth, as well as assess harvesting methods. Collaborations to test the materials’ properties and to develop new applications for industrial hemp also are expected. Economic and marketing issues such as the global industrial hemp market, industry partnerships, and domestic processing technologies may also be examined.

A number of growers have expressed strong interest in partnering with Virginia Tech to grow industrial hemp. However, no partner waiting list has been established at this point. Virginia Tech researchers will be conducting the initial hemp research themselves.

The university’s research with hemp in the first years is intended to reduce risk for Virginia’s producers as the university determines the best growing conditions and practices for the crop. Once best practices are established, the university will then share that knowledge with growers via Virginia Cooperative Extension.

The knowledge gained in this research will allow the university to move forward while the different state and federal agencies determine how they want to manage the availability of hemp seed for producers.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is getting permits for the seeds from the USDA. Once VDACS has the seeds, they will give them to Virginia Tech.