Among the many crops grown on Glenn Rodes’ family farm in Rockingham County this summer was one that hasn’t been cultivated in Virginia for decades, but which may have a chance at a comeback now thanks to a slow shift in attitudes and the law.
Hidden behind rows of corn in one field, Rodes grew a small plot of hemp, a hardy, fiber-rich plant that can grow eight feet tall, and which has been used for thousands of years to make textiles, ropes, paper, animal feed and food products.
In September, Rodes’ farm was part of Virginia’s first hemp harvest in decades. Hemp was once a mainstay crop in Virginia, until it ended up being banished as part of the long U.S. war on drugs starting in the 1930s.
Though it is grown in many other countries and used in numerous products—even some automobile parts contain hemp—the crop vanished through guilt by association. It is a variety of Cannabis Sativa, the same species as the marijuana plant.
Hemp advocates say the plant doesn’t deserve that opprobrium. Having been bred over many generations for its industrial uses, hemp has vastly lower concentrations of THC, the psychoactive compound that makes marijuana a recreational drug.
“There is a 70-year stigma that has been attached to it, but (hemp) is not a drug,” said Rodes, who along with several other family members operates a diversified, 900-acre crop and livestock farm started by his father in 1949.
Rodes said he was especially interested in growing hemp because of its potential to make biofuels. The hemp grown on his farm was used to make biodiesel to run farm equipment.
The Rodes farm is among the early participants in a research program that could lead to a revival of the crop. A movement is underway to remove legal barriers to the cultivation of hemp, though it remains under tight regulation for now, and it is unclear to what extent full commercialization might happen.
In the 2014 farm bill, the U.S. Congress allowed state departments of agriculture to license the growing of industrial hemp for research purposes.