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West Virginia isn’t nationally known as being an agricultural state.

Sure it’s rural. And yes, there are a lot of small farms in every county and people who make a living farming. But when compared to states like Kansas, Iowa and even Ohio, West Virginia is not even close. For years, the state’s agriculture industry has been primarily focused on livestock rather than crops, such as corn or soybeans.

But that may change thanks to hemp.

Hemp — the non-narcotic cousin of marijuana — is a small but growing agricultural specialty in West Virginia, with its grains, fibers and oils being used for everything from food to textiles to soaps to auto parts to polymers. The most valuable part of the plant right now is cannabidiol oil, or CBD, which can be used in personal care products, as well as medicines to ease chronic pain, help with neurological disorders, relieve depression and anxiety, and provide anti-inflammatory relief.

“CBD oil is the biggest market right now, and West Virginia farmers have the ability to produce it,” said J. Morgan Leach, who owns a farm in Wood County and serves as CEO of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative, an organization that represents industrial hemp growers in the state.

“Producing CBD oil is the best cash return for farmers right now,” he later added.

The state’s agricultural hemp program started back in 2002, when the Legislature asked the Department of Agriculture to set up a pilot program to support hemp research. But the project lay dormant, according to the department, until Congress passed a farm bill in 2014 giving states the OK to begin pilot programs for industrial hemp.

West Virginia launched its hemp pilot project that year with just a few approved and permitted hemp farmers. In 2017, the state Legislature expanded the pilot project to allow cultivation of hemp for commercial uses. Congress followed suit in 2018 and legalized hemp on a national scale, allowing it to be grown, transported across state lines and used for a variety of purposes, just like any other cash crop.

And farmers are starting to embrace it.

Crescent Gallagher, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said the number of farmers permitted to grow hemp has doubled, from 22 in the first year to 46 last year.

“[They] grew 155 acres of industrial hemp in 2018,” Gallagher said. “For 2019, our office has received applications from 199 growers who wish to become permitted hemp farmers. Not everyone will get approved, but we are in the process of reviewing those applications.”

In order to legally grow hemp, farmers must pass federal and state background checks; pay an application fee; and provide specific information about the farmer, his or her land (including GPS coordinates and where the seeds came from), how many acres will be dedicated to production and whether the site is secure. They also must agree to having their farms inspected, having their hemp tested and paying for any sampling or analysis of their product.

Those regulations haven’t stopped farmers from all over the state from applying, according to Leach.

“We are in the mid-Ohio valley, the Northern Panhandle, the Eastern Panhandle, Greenbrier Valley, Pocahontas County. We are all over the state,” he said.

The state’s climate is ideal for hemp, Gallagher said. The soil, temperatures and amount of rain are all good for growing hemp and marijuana; and, unlike beans and corn, the plants do not need an abundance of flat land. Instead, hemp can be grown indoors.

“We have some of the best growing conditions in the world for this plant,” said Chris Yeager, who owns Appalachian Cannabis, which sells CBD-infused oils and tinctures at its three locations — Cross Lanes, Morgantown and Charleston.

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While the interest in hemp farming is growing, Gallagher said West Virginia and its farmers are still in a learning mode, especially as it applies to federal rules and regulations regarding the crop. Other states, such as neighboring Kentucky, have a relatively flourishing agricultural hemp market, and West Virginia is catching up.

“Our farmers are still learning,” he said. “We are trying to work with the federal government and with each other. It is a huge educational effort.”

Gallagher said hemp growers in the state are subjected to inspections and testing to ensure their plants do not go over the legally allowed amounts of THC, which the Hemp Development Act defines as no more than 1 percent or the current limit allowed by federal law, which is 0.3 percent

Leach said there is a common misconception that hemp farmers in West Virginia are growing marijuana to be sold illegally. Not so, he said.

“We have had to distance ourselves from marijuana,” he said. “We are highly regulated, and we can make as much money growing hemp as if we were in the black market. There simply is no incentive for hemp farmers to grow marijuana.”

But what about when the issues with the state’s medical marijuana law are resolved? Or what if recreational marijuana becomes legal? Will West Virginia’s hemp farmers make the switch? Will the state’s Department of Agriculture act as the regulatory agent? Those questions have yet to be answered.

“We haven’t seen or heard how involved we will be,” Gallagher said, “but we stand ready to help. We are the experts on growing crops in the state, and we have the experience we’ve gained from working with hemp farmers.”

He said Agriculture Department employees are trained to know the differences between hemp and marijuana and have the expertise and machinery to test plant samples to make sure they are legal.

If it does eventually become legalized, Gallagher said he hopes the state would follow a similar path that it set out for hemp farmers.

“The department would clearly like to see opportunities for small farmers to be involved if that is what they wish to grow,” he said.

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