CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Hemp growers have the potential to earn tens of thousands of dollars in profit per acre, now that the crop has been made legal in Virginia.
Adrian Cable / CC BY-SA 2.0 / MGN
Dozens of local farmers attended a panel discussion Thursday night hosted by the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council (CBIC) to learn how to cash in on Virginia's latest cash crop.
"There are a lot of people clamoring to get into it," said CBIC Executive Director Tracey Greene. "It's sort of like the gold rush."
CBIC hosts Tech Night Takeover events once a quarter, but Greene said Thursday's panel discussion sold out in record time. There were so many people, they had to implement a standing room policy.
Greene said farmers still have lots of questions about what is allowed by the new federal farm bill and state laws regulating hemp production.
"People are like, 'Wait a minute, what? I thought that wasn't legal,'" Greene said. "'But now it is [legal]. So how do we know?'"
Hemp is essentially the same plant as marijuana. The only difference is that hemp must have a THC level below 0.3 percent. THC is the psychoactive chemical present in the cannabis plant.
The new farm bill distinguishes between hemp and marijuana and allows farmers to grow and sell hemp as an agricultural commodity.
Erin Williams from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says 847 Virginia farmers have already registered to grow hemp. That includes 19 in Albemarle County, 11 in Nelson County, 11 in Orange County, five each in Madison, Louisa and Fluvanna counties, and three in Greene County. Another 174 statewide have registered to process hemp into other products.
Katherine Knight, who founded Commonhealth Botanicals in Crozet, is one of them. She started devoting a portion of her farm to grow hemp this year.
"So far so good," Knight said. "There's a huge learning curve. The industry is so new. There's not a lot of traditional infrastructure yet in place, so right now it's really about networking."
Williams said VDACS estimates that 10,000 acres will be devoted to growing hemp this year in Virginia. That's an area of land 1.5 times larger than the city of Charlottesville.
"The plant is so versatile," Knight said. "I think there should be tremendous potential to grow for fiber, to grow for seed, as well as for the flower, for CBD and other extracts."
CBD is the reason Knight is growing hemp. It comes from the hemp flower and can be used to treat anxiety and pain.
Panel member Thomas Malone, the founder of Arena Group Consulting, estimated that farmers can make up to $46,000 in profit per acre by growing hemp and processing the flowers into CBD.
Dawn Morris sells CBD products at her store, Higher Education, on West Main Street in Charlottesville.
"It has amazing relief for people who have anxiety as well as pain relief," Morris said.
Now that hemp is legal to grow in Virginia, Morris is hoping to get some local suppliers.
"We've had a couple of locals come to us and say when their harvests come they'd like to speak with us," Morris said. "We're super excited. We would like to support the local community as much as the local community supports us."
Hemp fibers can also be used to make clothing and rope, and the seeds are high in protein and fatty acids. However, Malone said harvesting hemp for its fibers or seeds has a lower profit margin than using the flowers for CBD.