It’s undeniable that
West Virginia frequently lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to
new ideas and innovative solutions. From healthy initiatives to education,
West Virginia all too often scores low marks.
initiative that West Virginia has been way ahead on is the development of
industrial hemp. In 2002, the West Virginia Legislature tasked the West
Virginia Department of Agriculture with setting up a program to support
industrial hemp research. This program sat dormant until Congress, through
the 2014 Farm Bill, allowed industrial hemp research pilot projects to be
established under state departments of agriculture. West Virginia again
showed foresight in 2017 when the Legislature expanded that pilot project to
allow cultivation of industrial hemp for commercial purposes. Almost two
years later, Washington D.C. followed suit and legalized hemp on a national
scale through the 2018 Farm Bill.
Donald Trump signed the new Farm Bill, industrial hemp was separated from its
cannabis cousin, marijuana, and therefore removed from the list of scheduled
drugs. Now farmers can grow hemp like any other cash crop, transport it
across state lines and use the plant in the processing of numerous products.
The United States Department of Agriculture will, over the next several
months, promulgate rules and regulations. From there, the public will have
its say, and the agency will adjust. Once those rules are finalized, West
Virginia will submit its plan to manage the state program, based on
requirements laid out by the USDA. This process is no different for the
numerous other programs the WVDA works in cooperation with USDA.
In the meantime, the
WVDA and West Virginia’s industrial hemp program will be in a transition
period. We will continue to operate under the current rules and regulations
until the USDA establishes its new framework. The WVDA will work with our
farmers to understand these changes as they come down from the federal
government. Our goal is to ensure a smooth transition through an “educate
before regulate” mentality. We want to grow this industry, not hinder it. It
is clear our representatives in Washington support a robust industrial hemp
industry in the United States, and they have entrusted state departments of
agriculture to carry out their intentions.
What we can say for
sure is there’s a lot of excitement around growing industrial hemp. The WVDA
has seen a 300 percent increase in applications for the 2019 growing season.
Our challenge will be to match this excitement with the resources for proper
management. As of right now, the WVDA receives no state or federal support to
manage the program. We lag behind states like Kentucky, which will collect
upwards of $500,000 in fees to support four full-time employees. While we
work with the Legislature to find ways to bring in more resources, we know we
cannot operate this program on the $9,000 in fees we collect.
We have numerous
challenges ahead, but if we work together, West Virginia can tap into this
new market. We need support from Governor Jim Justice and our West Virginia
Legislature as we work through this process. We need to work with law
enforcement to ensure illegal drugs are not being grown alongside legal
crops. Farmers will have to understand how to comply with laws while
formulating best practices. As the regulatory agency, the WVDA will need to
provide more support to our farmers in the early years, as this industry gets
off the ground.
My staff and I stand
ready to help our farmers take advantage of this new agricultural frontier.
Our promise to them is we will work with our federal partners and the
Legislature on this and other projects to bring economic diversity to the
state. Failure is not an option. We must succeed or continue to fall behind.
Kent A. Leonhardt
Commissioner of Agriculture