Could Hemp Become West Virginia’s Cash Crop?

Hemp Farm, Photo courtesy - Barbetorte
Hemp Farm, Photo courtesy – Barbetorte

Written by John E. Mahlberg

As a young child, one of my earliest memories has me sitting on my grandmother’s front porch in the tiny but notorious community of Dingess, West Virginia, right in the heart of Bloody Mingo.

I do not know what time of year it was or even how old I may have been, but I distinctly remember watching intently as an entire column of dark green military-style Humvees  roared past her modest home.

Though I was only a small child, I could sense an excitement, perhaps even an anxiety in the air that afternoon, as somewhere, someone was quietly lying low, hiding, as their entire crop of marijuana was being confiscated by drug enforcement officers who, within a matter of hours, would be casting millions of dollars worth of goods into an incinerator.

Neither the wonder of that evening nor the endless chopping sound of the low flying helicopter, which buzzed for hours over our heads, be something I will soon forget.

A countless number of days have passed since that random date in my childhood.

No longer am I that young and innocent child who could not fully understand the events which were taking place that afternoon.  

Like me, West Virginia, too, is unrecognizable from the state that she was three decades ago.  To an outsider it may seem as though nothing at all has changed in the Mountain State over the past few decades, but for those of us living here, or at least trying to make a living in this place, life in West Virginia has never been so uncertain or different.

Coal will soon no longer be the nation’s number one source of energy for electricity and with its demise, so too are the outlooks of scores of communities throughout the entire Appalachian region.

As local leaders in the state’s southern and most hardest hit counties find themselves in the fight of their lives to save their towns from ruin, the rest of us can’t help but watch as they scramble to employ some of the most ingenious and out-of-the-box ideas ever imagined by local politicians.

Up to this point, the local plan of economic developers, however, has seemed to have been limited to either a.) begging anyone who owns an ATV within a thousand miles to come check out the Tug Rivers’ dozens of off road trails or b.) inundating the Main Street window shopper with Hatfield & McCoy coffee mugs, t-shirts and key chains — Really, who wouldn’t want to have a Devil Anse key chain? All the while, the true cash industry which could be changing everything for this hurting region may have been growing in them thur hills all along — marijuana, or to be more precise, cannabis.

Out of all the plants suited for growing in the Appalachian region, it’s hard to make a case for any one more so than Mary Jane herself.

In 2012, Business Week writer Roger Alford remarked that the region “has a near-perfect climate for marijuana cultivation.”  A quote in the same article from Ed Shemelya of the United States Justice Department stated, “Our climate, hydrology, soil are ideal for cultivating cannabis…  You can’t find a better mix for cultivating cannabis anywhere in the country.”

Now before every bead wearer east of the Mississippi pulls out their Buffalo Springfield records and toke to this article, we must first take a look at what cannabis could, and truly should be, grown for on a large scale in the United States — industrial materials.

Most Americans would be shocked to learn that the same plant our nation has federal laws against and is in a never ending battle to eradicate from its shores altogether is the very same plant our country’s industrial facilities are importing by the thousands of tons each year.

Though what one does with the plant’s leaves is a totally separate debate for a totally separate date, the durable, soft and fibrous stalk of cannabis, hemp, is valuable in tens of thousands of commercial products, especially as fiber ranging from paper, cordage, construction material,  textiles and clothing.  Hemp is stronger and longer-lasting than cotton. It also is a useful source of foodstuffs (hemp milk, hemp seed, hemp oil) and biofuels.

American industrialists and lovers of Mary Jane have long been pleading the case for American grown industrial hemp, however, for decades their calls have fallen upon deaf ears.

In light of California’s medical marijuana license program, which was followed by Colorado’s recreational marijuana allowance, other states are beginning to creep toward the idea of legalizing the industrial development of cannabis — among these states choosing to defy federal law is West Virginia.

On December 10, 2014, the state silently took a major leap in the direction of one day being known for its cannabis industry rather than its coal industry, when Walt Helmick, Commissioner of Agriculture, finalized the state’s new “hemp rules,” which have now been sent to the state’s legislature and is in the process of seeing its way into legality.

A major driving player in pushing for a simplification of the state’s “hemp rules” has been the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative.  Earlier last week, the organization released the following statement, “West Virginia has just made a giant leap forward in the quest to reintroduce our new, yet ancient, Cannabis Industry. Now it goes to the full Legislature, the House and Senate, for final consideration. After all we’ve been through, I’m right proud to say we’ve done it, the system worked, and Leadership in West Virginia have stood up in a history making legislative maneuver that is going to open up the possibilities for real prosperity.”

No state enters into 2015 with as much uncertainty as does West Virginia.  Who knows if the hemp industry will even become legal or prove to be as prosperous as its proponents are claiming.  But the thought of seeing all those high wall miner operators, who have been out of a job for so long, seated behind the steering wheel of a tractor, cultivating cannabis with the full blessing of the Charleston authorities is something that you just can’t help but get a smile from!

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  1. Please….If you truly want West Virginians to accept the prospects of growing industrial hemp, DO NOT further confuse this issue by directly equating industrial hemp with the cannabis that is smoked recreationally. The plants are distant cousins. Centuries ago, this plant was selected for & bred for 2 entirely different reasons; one was selected & bred for spiritual & medicinal use and the other for use for food, oils and rope. The latter is what has evolved to be used for dozens of different industrial products. The THC content (the ingredient in cannabis that gets you high and/or relieves pain) of hemp is MINISCULE compared to that of marijuana! You would have to smoke so much hemp that you would get sick before you would get stoned. Industrial hemp is an easily grown crop that would be ideal for WV to cultivate, whether by new farmers or old, on current farm land or abandoned mine lands. Please, whenever writing about this potential for our WV economy, make clear the very distinct differences between these two crops.

  2. Or, you can embrace the legalization of recreation marijuana as well as hemp. I grew up in West Virginia but now live in Washington State where the voters recently passed legislation to legalize recreation marijuana with the stipulation that all marijuana sold in strictly regulated stores must be GROWN and packaged in the state. I guarantee that in ten years or so when West Virginia realizes it is better for the economy to encourage entrepreneurs and farmers rather than spend taxpayer dollars sending pot smokers to jail, you will be contacting consultants in our state to show you how it’s done.

  3. I would contend that marijuana (the get you high kind of hemp) is likely already West Virginia’s largest cash crop, albeit an illegal one, bringing hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars into the state. Consider that the cultivation of industrial hemp would release massive quantities of pollen that would compromise decades of careful cross-breeding and hybridization that produce the (get-high) quality that is expected in today’s black market. Industrial hemp production could be a boon to West Virginia but in real dollars (including black-market income) it’s revenue gains may be offset by a bust for WV marijuana growers, or at least, may force them into indoor operations. This is a plus for anti-marijuana legislators and law-enforcement. I have to think that large pot growers are fighting industrial hemp, tooth and nail and $$$s.

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