HARRISONBURG — James Madison University is preparing to take its industrial hemp research to another level.
Michael Renfroe, the biology professor who has led the university’s hemp-growing efforts for the last two years, said the university is close to hiring an agro-ecologist to oversee the project this year. The step comes as JMU prepares to boost the number and geographic breadth of its partner farms.
“This is just to complement the current faculty who are involved and make sure we have enough boots on the ground to work with our farming partners,” Renfroe said of adding the post to Madison’s payroll. “We want to make sure they have whatever advice they need when they’re planting, cultivating, harvesting and processing.”
The university worked with one Rockingham County farm and one in Albemarle County in 2016, the year it began its research. Last year, another farm in Albemarle and one in Fluvanna County joined to the study.
This year, Renfroe said, the number of host farms will grow to 12, the farthest in Middlesex. One of the farms to be added is in Rockingham.
Working closely with the farmers involved is important because most aren’t familiar with growing crops for research. They need to know protocols for planting and data collection so JMU can get the information necessary for its study, and the new farm manager will help with that.
“We’re at a very early stage in terms of agronomic research,” Renfroe said, “so we want to make sure we get the most information we can from our investment here so can we provide farmers the kind of knowledge they need to successfully grow hemp.”
Plenty Learned So Far
Industrial hemp was grown in Virginia for decades, including by some of America’s Founding Fathers, and the nation’s Declaration of Independence was written on it.
But in 1970, the plant — a biological cousin to marijuana that lacks the chemical makeup to make someone “high” — was placed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on a list of Schedule I controlled substances that are illegal to grow for commercial sale. Legislation in recent years allowed hemp research to begin, though.
Renfroe said the first two years of research have yielded valuable information on planting rates, fertility and watering needs, potential insect and disease issues, and competitive weed species.
“With what we learn this year,” he said, “we should be in pretty good shape as far as how to select an appropriate site and match it to a particular cultivar.”
As the state’s land-grant institutes, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University long have been at the forefront of agricultural research projects.
But with the study of industrial hemp so new, Renfroe said JMU has a chance to be a player when it comes to learning about the plant. Its potential impact is enhanced because it’s teaming with farmers to grow the crop on a production level instead of limiting it to research plots.
“It’s an emerging crop, and we feel that we’re strategically poised to be able to take advantage of the research opportunities available here,” he said. “Because we’re strategically partnering with the public, doing it as an outreach activity, we can get the quickest turnaround, the quickest results in terms of what’s useful to the farmers.
“We’re the only university that went straight to production-level research. By next fall, we should be well-positioned to have information that’s going to be useful to Virginia farmers.”
Renfroe said he’s optimistic the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017 will be approved by Congress this year, opening avenues for farmers to grow and sell the plant that has myriad uses. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, has signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor.
Obtaining seed has been a concern in the past, but Renfroe said JMU has established relationships with three suppliers, so he thinks that won’t be an issue this year.
A bill in the Virginia General Assembly would allow farmers to grow hemp on their own without being connected to a university research project. However, he cautioned that growers shouldn’t take that route.
“Our concern is if a lot of people start growing hemp on their own without working with a university, there will be a lot of aggregate data that will be lost,” Renfroe said. “People will be making the same mistakes other people have made because there’s no one guiding their efforts.”