Hemp’s future uncertain in Rockbridge County

Pure Shenandoah, a hemp supplier in Elkton, Virginia, wants to cast the cannabis product as a new fiber alternative. (Raicht photo)

By Ryan Raicht

Pure Shenandoah in Elkton grows hemp and uses its crops to produce its own line of cannabidiol products, including CBD oils, smokable hemp flower and hemp fiber.

Abner Johnson, who owns Pure Shenandoah with his three brothers, said they have had success producing hemp using updated technology. But he says the brothers have faced their share of challenges in the industry.

“Because it’s in the hemp space, and people still kind of frown upon hemp, there’s not the most capital out there,” Johnson said. “The regulations and laws are always changing, so it’s scary for a lot of people to invest more than a few hundred thousand dollars.”

Johnson said he remains optimistic about hemp’s potential.

“Hemp can take over so many and replace so many things,” he said. “But it’s like a stepping stone. It takes time to slowly get contractors on to it and slowly build the supply chain.”

This past season, Pure Shenandoah planted cannabis plants on about 450 acres, specifically to be used for industrial processing of fibers found inside each plant.

The Johnson brothers also a bought hemp harvester from Lithuania. The hemp harvester is a machine that assists in cutting up plants as the farmer operates it.

Johnson said the brothers plant a million seeds per acre. Later, the farmers let the plants dry in the field after they’ve grown. In doing so, they allow the plants decompose—and that’s when the fiber emerges and separates from the stalk.

The fiber found in hemp is extracted from small pieces of the cannabis plant, known as buds. (Raicht photo)

Pure Shenandoah ships the fibers out to companies with factories that convert the fiber into products such yarn, rope, cable and string. Hemp fiber can also be used to make bioplastics that are recyclable and biodegradable.

But Tom Stanley, an agricultural and farm business management extension agent from Virginia Tech University, said he doubts the long-term prospects of hemp fiber as a sustainable crop.

“It’s not apparent to me how hemp fiber can compete with the timber industry and the cotton industry, all of your other sources of fiber already,” he said.

Stanley said the biggest obstacle for hemp farming in Rockbridge County is its rocky, hilly terrain.
“You’ve got a bunch of states with a lot more flat, open land than our part of Virginia,” he said. “We just don’t have enough for it to be a sustainable crop… Whoever’s got the biggest machine and the most flat land is going to win.”

Smaller farms also can’t afford the expensive technology nor can they meet the labor demands necessary to extract fiber from the plants, Stanley said.

Fibers are extracted from the hemp plant’s stem. But Stanley said hemp will struggle to thrive in Rockbridge County. (Raicht photo)

“It’s very intensive,” he said. “You’re managing five, ten acres or maybe 30 or 40 acres if you’re really into it and you’ve got a bunch of laborers to help you. For fiber hemp, you’re talking about tractor trailer loads of fiber that you would have to have in order to be competitive.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture also sets limits on the chemical components and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, percentages that come from the cannabis plants. If the crop exceeds the limit, the department will destroy it.