Tidewater Current





Original Content & Curated News Featuring Sustainable Endeavors in Coastal Virginia & beyond.

Tyton's Bope picTyton Bioenergy Systems of Danville, VA is transitioning tobacco to an energy crop. Company co-founder Lulian Bope is pictured in a tobacco field where plants can grow as tall as 11 feet and will regrow after a midseason harvest.


Sowing the Seeds of Change:
Revolutionary Crop Cultivation in Virginia

Posted 4 May 2016 by Carol Brighton

There’s good news for the struggling small farmers of the Commonwealth.  Historically significant cash crops could make a comeback. Once ubiquitous in fields across the state, hemp and tobacco are ripe for a renaissance.

Grown by the founding fathers and even traded as currency in the colonial era, hemp fell out of favor almost a century ago. Although production was briefly revived for the WWII war effort, the erroneous association with its psychoactive cousin led to taxation in the 1930s that discouraged farming and eventually supported its complete abolition. In 1970 it was listed as a schedule 1 narcotic in the Controlled Substances Act. More recently, tobacco’s demise resulted as medically proven health concerns associated with its use gained popular acceptance and demand for cigarettes plummeted.  New eco-friendly products created from these crops could redeem their marred reputations and increase farmers' opportunities to cultivate cash crops well suited to the region.  They even have the potential to relieve another American addiction: reliance on imported fossil fuel.

Transforming the Tobacco Economy in the Old Dominion

Tobacco is not only fast growing, it is well adapted to the climate of Virginia and can be grown on marginal land with minimal inputs.  Tyton Bioenergy Systems of Danville, Virginia has developed an energy rich tobacco that is both high in sugar and oil content sans the nicotine.  They’ve also created a process to convert that oil and sugar into valuable chemicals and fuel. With this technology and growing demand for carbon neutral jet fuel, the all but snuffed out tobacco economy could fire up again. Company president, Peter Majeranowski said, "Tyton's new technology can be a game-changer for the US Navy and the global community of airlines that seek to minimize the carbon impact of jet fuel. Our ultra-rapid conversion process is cheaper and cleaner because we don't use expensive and toxic metal catalysts."

Navy_biofuel_testsBlue Angels take flight in 2011 with a blended camellina based biofuel. Image: US Navy

Tyton is not the only company investigating tobacco as a biofuel.  Boeing is working with South African Airways and SkyNRG to develop an alternative tobacco fuel. And along with the US Department of Defense, aviation industry giants like UPS, FedEx, United, South West, KLM and more are working to incorporate cleaner burning non fossil fuels. 

Hemp Makes a Comeback in the Commonwealth

Virginia researchers are likewise investigating hemp for energy potential. In addition to fuel, hemp can be used to make building materials, paper, textiles. plastics and composites. So, developing a hemp agricultural industry doesn't just promise to cut reliance on petroleum products: Demand for natural resources like trees which provide beneficial ecosystem services and environmentally burdensome materials like cotton can be replaced with more sustainable hemp.

Vote_Hemp_State_map27 states have defined industrial hemp as distinct and removed barriers to its production. In 2015, 6 states allowed hemp research crops. Congressional legislation introduced this session, S 134 and HR 525, would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp. Image: Vote Hemp

Unfortunately and perhaps somewhat ironically, study of the benign botanical is far more difficult for scientists compared to tobacco. Recent passage of both federal and state legislation now permits Virginia hemp cultivation conducted through state agriculture agencies and universities. However, hemp is still federally regulated making research complicated, to say the least. This may change soon. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to rectify hemp's mistaken classification and exclude it from the list of schedule 1 narcotics. But for now, experimental production currently involves a lots of red tape, scrutiny and costs. Despite the hurdles, three Virginia universities are set to explore how hemp might best be reintroduced into the farming economy. 

According to Erin Williams of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), "research licenses have been issued to James Madison, Virginia Tech and Virginia State Universities."  This spring, hemp seeds will be sewn for the first time in decades in the Commonwealth.  Williams notes seeds are coming from Europe and Canada which have been certified to contain 0.3% THC or less. In addition to international shipping costs and customs forms, paper work and fees have to be coordinated through VDACS, USDA, DEA, as well as state and local police departments. The GPS location of every field must be provided to authorities and background checks are run on those involved with the projects. During the growing season official site visits are expected and plant THC testing will be performed.

GenAerial shot of Gencanna's hemp harvest at the Graves Farm in Clark County, KY. In 2014, only 33 acres were in production in KY. In 2015 that grew to 900 acres and in 2016 over 4500 acres are planned.

Virginia Tech and VSU researchers will explore growing several different cultivars while scientists at JMU will focus on one variety of the plant for seeds and oil that can be processed into fuel. Dr. Michael Renfroe of JMU reports that he is working with 2 private growers that will sow approximately 10 acres of hemp each. The farmers were selected to participate in the program based on several criteria including the suitability of their land, their experience growing oil crops, possession of the equipment necessary to manage and harvest the crop, and proximity to the University to allow for convenience in supervision yet still remote enough to be outside of public scrutiny.

Along with growth monitoring, field inputs like fertilizer will be varied in test plots at the sites. Investigators will also be evaluating the effectiveness of conventional farm equipment in harvesting the seeds. What is harvested must be used on site. Renfroe notes that under the licensure agreement, the researchers and farmers are "not permitted to sell, distribute or use the crop other than where it is produced.” Seeds of the harvest will be pressed and converted to biodiesel to power farm equipment. The residue from that process high in protein and oil will be made into cakes for livestock feed and the fiber from the stems will be processed into animal bedding.

Hemp Products

Hemp_nutritional_sups_picHemp health product retail sales in the US for 2014 are estimated at $200 million.

BMW i3Automotive icon, Henry Ford, grew hemp for fuel and used its durable composites in early model cars. Now it can be found in high end brands like BMW as well as more economical vehicles from Ford, GM & Chrylser.

This Virginia home is constructed with carbon sequestering hemp. Insulating hempcrete also absorbs carbon during a long curing process.

Virginia State University and Virginia Tech plan to conduct their research on university property. The main priority of their work will be identifying varieties that perform well and produce high yields in Virginia. Dr. John Fike of Virginia Tech estimates that 8-12 different types consisting of oil, fiber and dual varieties will be cultivated.  He notes that "among other sites, we likely will have a trial at the Southern Piedmont AREC looking at fertility and the Northern Piedmont Center (formerly an AREC) also will be used.” Heirloom varieties better suited to climate conditions in the Commonwealth are of interest to Fike, but he is unaware of any such seed. He does note that a Colorado farmer happened to find a hemp plant along a roadside from which fields of the crop are now being planted.

There's a lot to learn about cultivating hemp. In its heyday, labor intensive agriculture was practiced that now has been replaced with machines and chemicals. And the staple of yesterday, the fiber crop for canvas sails and rope, is different than the grain or seed crop which garners a great deal of interest from today's farmers for its lucrative niche in the nutritional and health food industry. Potential medicinal and pharmaceutical uses could drive the value way up.

Hemp proponents tend to paint a pie in the sky picture of farming the crop, touting low water, fertilizer and pesticide requirements and big financial returns. Fike admits that there's a real "allure" to the crop, but he's waiting on trial results to get a better feel for its economic prospects. One area that he hopes to investigate is herbicides for hemp. No pesticides for the plant have been registered. He notes that one US farmer producing the seed variety which is spaced further apart in the field recently suffered the loss of an entire crop due to weeds.

It's easy to understand why farmers are chomping at the bit to cash in on the crop. In 2014, the Industrial Hemp Association estimated that $620 million in hemp products were sold in the United States. Essentially all that hemp was imported. And the Los Angeles Times reports hemp farmers in Canada were earning $250 per acre for hemp planted in 2013 versus $71/acre for soy planted in South Dakota in 2014.

The research being conducted at Virginia universities is hugely important to lay the groundwork to revitalize hemp production. When the federal classification of hemp is rectified, commercial farming will be permitted in states like Virginia where it is authorized. Licensure and certified seed will still be required, but imported seed may not be necessary. The Colorado Department of Agriculture is working on developing certified seed. And with 27 states, including Virginia now permitting state sponsored research, more certified seed programs are likely to emerge.

Tobacco and hemp could form the foundation of more sustainable and resilient agricultural economy in Virginia. The US Department of Defense, the world's largest user of energy and transportation fuels has a mandate to procure clean and domestic sources of energy. These revolutionary crops may offer viable solutions to the DOD which has many major installations in or close to Virginia, including Naval Station Norfolk. To fuel ships on the west coast, the Navy recently contracted with California based Altair to provide 77.6 million gallons of a blended fuel consisting of 90% petroleum and a 10% feedstock generated from beef tallow waste fat at competitive cost of $2.05/gallon. So far, the government has invested over $500 million dollars for drop in biofuels.

The role that tobacco and hemp could play in powering national defense certainly warrants further investigation. Hemp as a dual purpose crop could supply fuel derived from the seeds as well as ethanol processed from the fiber. The fiber also holds promise in the energy storage sector. Laboratory studies indicate that nanosheets derived from the fibers perform extraordinarily well in fast charging supercapacitor applications.

UPDATE: Hemp seeds were sown in June. Check out Brian Walden's Youtube.


Read More about Hemp in these TidewaterCurrent.com posts:

Aviation Pioneer Plans Hemp Flight from Kitty Hawk, NC

Cash Crop Gains Ground in the Old Dominion

Will the Green Reality of Hemp Tempt Domestic Production?

Follow Hemp news on Pinterest or in the Flipboard collection below.


View my Flipboard Magazine.  






Check the Archive for Previous Posts

All Rights Reserved: Disclaimer

Top of Page