November-December 2019

For Farmers, Hemp Is the New Cash Crop

“Mac” McConnell is 99 years old, was a Navy pilot during World War II, and a veteran investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who helped his wife run a school for children with disabilities.

And now he’s the owner of a family farm in Stanley, Virginia, that produces industrial hemp.

That’s quite the journey, but as Susan Corbett, his daughter and general manager of River’s Bend Farm, explains, it’s a matter of diversifying to keep up with the times.

“We’re hoping to create a cash crop for the ranch to help us get through the winter because winter times are slow out here in the Shenandoah Valley,” says Corbett. “It’s a struggle to keep a small family farm. It’s harder and harder these days.”

Industrial hemp is taking root as a possibility for Virginia farmers. Be clear — McConnell, Corbett and other growers are not tending to the variety of cannabis associated with marijuana.

Instead, industrial hemp has a low concentration of tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, which produces the high associated with marijuana. Its uses include fiber, health food and fuel, while its flowers yield CBD oil, popular in treatment of pain and anxiety.

Corbett got the idea for branching out from CBD oil. She used it with positive results and then bought hemp bedding for her horse stalls, only to find the material had to be imported from Ukraine because its production was limited within the United States.

The federal Farm Bill of 2018 loosened those restrictions and the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam gave industrial hemp growers the go-ahead earlier this year. River’s Bend Ranch, served by Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, secured its permit from the Virginia Department of Agriculture in March, one of the first to do so in the upper Shenandoah Valley.

“I got busy right away ordering seeds with a greenhouse and some platforms,” Corbett says. “I germinated them at 6,000 feet and we planted them. Now I’ve got these huge plants. They’re enormous. I’m getting ready to harvest 6,000 plants and I’m calling around trying to get people to come and help me harvest them.”

In 2018, Virginia producers grew about 135 acres of industrial hemp, all for research purposes. In 2019, that number will soar to about 8,000 acres, according to ag department estimates. Like River’s Bend Ranch, most producers are taking baby steps to ensure they can grow hemp properly and find a place for their output. In general, industrial hemp should be planted between May and mid-June, and takes about 10 weeks to harvest.

“The market is still very volatile,” Corbett says. “I hope I’m not going to be sitting on 5,000 pounds of biomass, but I had a good harvest. I hope we can get a good return on investment.”

If so, that’ll definitely help out with the 250-acre farm (riversbendranch.com), which hosts weddings, events, horseback riding and other activities. Corbett plans to put together a conference on industrial hemp to explain that it is a labor-intensive process, especially to grow the flowers.

“I think it has a tremendous potential for the whole Shenandoah Valley. We have a lot of empty chicken houses around here, and they would make great buildings for either indoor growing or indoor drying,” she says.

In the meantime, her dad is right by her side, offering encouragement and advice. “He’s my biggest cheerleader now,” Corbett says. “I’m trying to do my dad proud and make this place a success and he’s been very pleased.”