Loudoun has built some of the most iconic and important parts of its economy by getting out in front of trends that turned into major facts of life—be they data centers and the internet at the turn of the century, or craft brewing in just the past few years.
Now, some Loudoun farmers and economic development leaders say they see the next big thing coming: industrial hemp. And Loudoun Department of Economic Development Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Hinkle said Loudoun is already getting in front of it.
“We know we can grow it, we know we can process it, and people are already using it,” Hinkle said. “The only piece we don’t have is the ability to commercially produce it, and just like we were out in front of the craft beer industry with the hops, we use the same model.”
Today, universities and organizations like Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development are working to spread that know-how so that if and when farmers turn to industrial hemp, they can hit the ground running.
“The biggest thing is it’s not a commodity crop, there’s nobody setting the price of industrial hemp,” Hinkle said. “It’s going to be a market-driven price, and because it’s not a widespread crop that we’re already growing, if we get in first, and we’re really good at it, then we’re going to corner the market on industrial hemp production.”
Sam Grant and Ryan Doherty of Virginia Hemp Company hope to be in that first wave. They are working to open a hemp processing facility near Purcellville, and also plan to be part of studying how to best grow and process the plant. They are among the people who have been buying hemp from elsewhere and selling it as bedding for horse stalls, and they say they’ve had positive reviews from the equestrian owners who have tried it.
And they say hemp could be a moneymaker for farmers struggling to make a profit off of their land. Hemp grows quickly, replenishes the soil in ways similar to other rotation crops like soy, needs less fertilizer and water, and can be sold at a good price.
“The farmer is about three-and-a-half times, maybe four times on his profitability off an acre of ground, which is why I say I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to get hay farmers to convert,” Grant said. To control the product he wants for his production facility, he plans to provide farmers with seed for the particular cultivar he wants.
“So then I get to knock on some farmer’s door, and say, look, I’ll give you the seed, and I’ll guarantee I’ll buy the product, you just do what you’ve always been doing,” Grant said.
Grant and Doherty point to hemp’s flexibility as an agricultural product, feeding into everything from animal bedding, to paper products and rope, to textiles, to building materials like “hempcrete”—a combination of hemp and lime that provides insulation and captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it a carbon-negative building material. The first home made with hempcrete in Virginia, “Mare Cannabum,” is in Virginia Beach.
In some of those uses, hemp’s proponents say it is better than the current standard, particularly for paper. While the trees used to make paper today take years to regrow, a hemp crop is ready to harvest in around 70 days.
Marty Phipps, owner of Old Dominion Hemp based in Waynesboro, has been advocating the expansion of hemp production in Virginia for years.
“Some of the legality issues involved with that, I think it’s still keeping some of the major landowners at bay,” Phipps said. “But I think progress is definitely being made. Opening up the doors is what we should be doing. Other states are having great success with it and seeing large acreage starting to be produced.”
Phipps has been importing hemp from Europe to sell for equine bedding for years, and he says once Virginia has localized production and processing, “that’s when it starts.”
Hemp has been grown in Virginia for almost as long as there have been Europeans on the continent, and several Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are known to have grown and spoken highly of the plant. But the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, has been banned in Virginia since the 1930s because of another strain of the same species—Cannabis sativa indica, or marijuana.
But industrial hemp has vanishingly low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high. Activists have tried for years to get the state and federal government to draw a distinction between the different strains. In 2014, Congress passed legislation that defined hemp as containing very low THC, beginning to separate it from marijuana in federal law. Another federal bill, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, co-sponsored a Democrat and two Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is in committee. And this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that brought that reality one step closer here.
This year, to grow hemp, farmers must be associated with a research program at a university and pass a background check. But starting July 1, the background check is replaced with a registration requirement, and hemp cultivation is opened up more broadly. That could start bringing back a crop that has grown in Virginia since the 1600s.
“I don’t think there’s really a limitation on where this crop could potentially produce jobs and income and infrastructure,” Phipps said.
Grant said it may be slow going at first.
“We’ve got some conversion to do, and farmers are well known not to be followers,” Grant said. “They’re independent on purpose. It wasn’t by accident there’s no farmers’ union.”
But, he said, showing them the potential for profit could change minds.
“We’re full steam ahead,” Phipps added. “We’re making some great progress, and our market is growing throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. We’re excited about what we have in store this coming year.”