Farmers and researchers explain how JMU hemp studay will benefit Augusta County

February 14, 2020

Men looking and feasibility of an industrial hemp farm

Localities in the Shenandoah Valley pledged varying amounts toward the James Madison University hemp study, except for Augusta County.

The study will answer questions like: Who are the growers? What is the environment here for hemp? What is the economic potential for hemp? Where are the processors?

It will also set up an online database for farmers to tap. According to the study application, a web-based information sharing portal would be developed to connect researchers to practitioners, hosting “town hall” and focus group meetings to refine and align findings with practitioner experiences, and publishing an economic scenario analysis report.

“We want to understand the experiences that some of these growers have had in the past and understand the concerns about disease and pests and things like that,” said Keith Holland, JMU interim vice provost for research and scholarship.

The development of the communication portal will be vital, Holland said, not only for growers and processors, but localities.

“Everybody has a common point of access to information about the economic process, some of the regulatory concerns and things like that emerging in our in our area,” he said.

The study is headed up by Dr. C.K. Lee of the JMU College of Business and Dr. Samuel Morton of the JMU College of Integrated Science and Engineering. It’s aimed to complete an economic landscape analysis, agricultural data collection and information dissemination and network formation.


The project needed $5,000 more in order to apply for a matched grant before the end of month deadline in January, and Augusta County and Staunton were the last two interested localities.

Last month, Augusta County supervisors downplayed the importance of a local hemp study and refused to provide $2,500 in funding, Staunton stepped in and pledged the full $5,000 needed to move forward.

Augusta County has 19 registered hemp growers with 21 hemp fields totaling just over 24 acres, according to the JMU study proposal and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Staunton has two registered hemp growers with no acreage. Rockbridge and Rockingham counties both have a heavy hemp presence with nearly 132 acres and 92 acres, respectively.

The total study amounts to $107,260, which includes half of that matched by the localities and JMU in-kind contributions.

Other localities include:

  • Bath County: $2,100
  • Highland County: $508
  • Page County: $4,500
  • Rockbridge County: $4,000
  • Rockingham County: $5,000
  • Shenandoah County: $5,000

Augusta County will still be part of the study, even though they didn’t approve to fund it, according to Holland.

“We’re fortunate enough that there’s there’s interest up and down the Shenandoah Valley,” he said. “Several of the other localities have decided that this was a worthwhile investment, but certainly we understand that there are a lot of factors for deciding how localities are going to invest their funds.”

JMU has been researching hemp since state law allowed for it. A 2015 state law let VDACS establish an industrial hemp research program directly managed by higher education institutes. JMU entered into an agreement with the state in 2015, the same year as Virginia Tech.

“There seems to be a lot of speculation and a lot of positive energy around what the possibilities are around industrial hemp,” Holland said. “But there are still a lot of questions.”

The county has previously backed agricultural research funding.

In 2018, Augusta County and six other counties partnered in a Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services study on dairy processing. The county gave a $5,000 funding commitment with $1,000 in-kind support.

The snub from Augusta County left some farmers a bit baffled.

Marc Armstrong grew two acres of hemp this past season on his property in the county. He wondered why Staunton agree to fund the study but the county didn’t despite it having more hemp farmers.

“The issue, as I see it, is how to grow the taxpayer base by making choices that maximize the economic impact of an economic sector,” he said. “Staunton has a great track record of being proactive. Meanwhile, in this case, Augusta County’s historical leadership in agriculture could be usurped by other counties that do more to nurture the growing hemp industry.”

Armstrong is hopeful that Augusta County will get back on the same page as other counties have been with hemp.

“Industrial hemp has hundreds of uses, so it would be a unfortunate if hemp farmers in Augusta County continue to need to go to other counties for seed, clones and services or sell to value-added customers who are located elsewhere,” Armstrong said. “I expect that Augusta County will eventually take the initiative to figure out how the county can partner with those of us who are in the hemp industry.”

Why hemp?

Armstrong said he decided to grow hemp due to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which took hemp off the Schedule 1 drug list. All farmers have to do is register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as of July 1, 2018.

According to Armstrong, Augusta County has some of the driest soils in the South, which makes it ideal for growing hemp. He and his wife had a hayfield that lended itself to producing hemp.

“We decided to take the plunge,” he said. It’s been a big investment with an uncertain market, but we’re partnering with knowledgeable people who are helping us bring our products to market. A bill pending in Congress that classifies CBD as a food supplement will, if passed, help expand the market and increase demand.”

For this season, he plans on planting another crop and will focus on other CBD hemp varieties that have no THC.

Shenandoah Valley Hemp, a seed-to-sale company out of Elkton, works closely with partner farms in the Shenandoah Valley to source, process and extract cannabinoids (current focus on CBD) derived from hemp.

The Valley has a rich history of farming and the reintroduction of hemp could provide another revenue opportunity for local farmers, according to Jake Johnson, the company’s cultivation director.

“The infrastructure and regulation are in the infant stages but overall, it will be a great opportunity for farmers looking to transition or expand their crops,” he said. “I truly believe cannabis will be used on a daily basis by many Americans in the near future.”

Johnson has been working with hemp for the past four years after he graduated from JMU. He and his three brothers started Shenandoah Valley Hemp in December 2018. They recently opened a hemp processing plant in Elkton that opened last October.

“It is imperative to the future of the hemp industry that we continue to gain more information and conduct studies on all levels from farming and processing to end products,” Johnson said. “The capabilities of cannabis are limitless and can change our lives for the better, we just need to continue researching and testing these products in order to take full advantage of the benefits.”

The funding is set to come from Virginia Growth and Opportunity Board’s GO Virginia program, which is under the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The localities had to come up with matching funds.

The Shenandoah Valley is in Region 8.

The project was presented to the Region 8 Council earlier in February and was recommended for funding. The next step is to get state approval, which is expected in March. The plan is to launch an information sharing website in March.

A final report is expected in October.

Article by Laura Peters, originally appeared in the Staunton News Leader on February 14, 2020.