Research looks at economic, health benefits of industrial hemp as cash crop
At The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, associate professor of biology Ryan Huish is currently conducting research on the potential economic and health benefits of industrial hemp.
Huish said the opportunity to research industrial hemp in southwest Virginia came about when Jason Amatucci, the founder and executive director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, saw the potential that southwest Virginia had to offer to the hemp industry. Then, when The University of Virginia received a 1.1 million dollar grant to research industrial hemp, Amatucci suggested that UVa and UVa-Wise collaborate in research.
Huish said that some of the goals of this research include discovering, “which cultivars grow best in Virginia, and at UVa-Wise finding out which cultivars grow best specifically in southwest Virginia”. Huish and collaborating researchers and community members are working with local farmers on land that was previously used as tobacco fields.
While the majority of the hemp plants used for research are in Charlottesville at UVA, some plants were brought to Wise this past spring and are currently located in the college’s greenhouse. Huish said that hemp plants are in the same species as marijuana plants, but there are thousands of different cultivars, or plants that are produced through selective breeding, that make it different from marijuana.
“With our [cannabidio] focused research we are trying to get the varieties that are low in THC because unfortunately, when you plant the hemp, if the hemp goes through any environmental stress — like the pH balance being wrong in the soil — the plant is stimulated to increase the production of THC, in which it becomes illegal to grow,” Huish said. “We are breeding CBD varieties so that farmers don’t have that risk.”
Huish said that the laws for growing industrial hemp in Virginia are ambiguous right now, and up until July of 2018 farmers wanting to grow hemp had to go through background checks, fingerprinting, and verification with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. But the laws have changed and farmers no longer have to have a background check when working with a research institution, although they do still have to get a permit through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which Huish says is not easy to get.
Huish said that hemp has thousands of uses including rope, pharmaceuticals, paper, wood paneling and Ford has even made a car out of hemp.
“The overarching goal for this research is to help the local economy,” Huish said.
He also added that this could be the next necessary cash crop in order to bring an “economic transition” to southwest Virginia.
Huish said that hemp can grow under similar conditions that tobacco grows in, and the tobacco industry is not booming like it once was, so hemp is an opportunity to bring economic relief to local farmers. He said that if more people understood the benefits of hemp, they would be more open to it.