West Virginia’s industrial hemp program is quadrupling year over year, with more than 1,000 acres of hemp expected to be grown in the state next year.
This year, West Virginia hemp growers recorded 641 acres of industrial hemp cultivation by 132 farmers—a notable increase from the 155 acres grown by 24 farmers in 2018.
For the 2020 growing season, West Virginia has received 407 industrial hemp license applications (as of Oct. 1).
Crescent Gallagher, communications director and legislative liaison for the Department of Agriculture, tells Hemp Grower that these numbers are indicative of a growing national interest in hemp. Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, West Virginia and other agricultural markets have seen considerable interest from farmers willing to add hemp to their crop rotation.
But it’s a steep learning curve, he cautions.
“Some of the challenges obviously are first and foremost finding a market for their raw materials,” Gallagher says. “A lot of farmers are excited to get into this new industry, but something we stress with all farmers—regardless of what crop you’re growing—is you need to have a market in place before you start growing something. You can’t be growing products that there’s no market for. Find agreements with processors. Find agreements with buyers. Ensure you’re growing the right amount of acreage for your farm. You don’t want to be left with all this raw material and nowhere to send it.”
By and large, though, the early years of industrial hemp in West Virginia have been successful. Gallagher says that the 2019 season brought only a 10-percent failure rate among testing samples for THC content. From the 132 farmers this year, the department drew 259 samples; 27 came in over the 0.3-percent THC threshold. Anecdotally, Gallagher says, based on informal conversations with agricultural officials in other states, that seems to be below the norm.
Part of that failure rate is a product of hemp variety experimentation. Growers in West Virginia (and elsewhere) are figuring out which cultivars work best in the local climate. Some varieties end up developing higher THC content than others. Others just don’t grow well in the region’s soils.
The department is working on a seed certification program now. Until that’s in place, state officials continue to work with farmers to learn about what’s working in West Virginia. Gallagher says he met with a farmer who was growing six varieties across 50 acres—and at least one variety was visibly more robust than the others.
Beyond the scope of the hemp program, the state’s agricultural news has been concerning lately: On Oct. 10, Gov. Jim Justice announced a state of emergency for all 55 counties due to drought. Dry conditions have persisted for weeks in West Virginia.
Gallagher says he hasn’t heard specifically from any industrial hemp farmers who’ve been forced to harvest early, but farmers working other crops around the state have certainly been put into a bind this season. Nonetheless, for hemp growers, an earlier-than-expected harvest may not be the end of the world: The 0.3-percent THC threshold looms as plants mature, and no farmer wants to endure a “hot” crop test.