West Virginia hemp farmers say their crop undergoes more stringent testing than in other states, putting them at a disadvantage – and costing them profits – in a burgeoning industry.
Growers say the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, unlike similar agencies in other states, is testing total THC instead of delta-9 THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) forcing them to cut crops before they reach full maturity.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a product of the cannabis plant, but hemp has a lower level of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical that gives users a “high.”
As defined, hemp should contain no more than a 0.3 percent concentration of delta-9 THC.
When the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production, removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, some 130 farmers in the Mountain State responded by planting 641 acres of the crop this year.
But the federal government mandates that each state keep track of land, set testing methods and dispose of any plants that exceed THC requirements.
Ralph Burns, owner of Kinfolk Farms in Pocahontas County, says the issue with these individualized programs is some states have less rigorous testing methods than others.
Burns says his hemp farm will always comply with state guidelines. But West Virginia’s guidelines are too punitive, he maintains, and he hopes testing requirements will be modified.
“In the (Farm Bill) language, they said we should be testing delta-9 on the THC side,” Burns said. “Yet West Virginia and a few other states said we were going to do a test on total THC.”
Total THC will always be higher than delta-9, according to Burns.
No official testing method
The Farm Bill wants states to have regulations for testing.
Because there is not an official testing method per se, many states presume the federal guidelines suggest using HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) or GC (gas chromatography) testing.
In GC testing, a hemp sample is heated to separate the compounds. It decarboxylates – or converts – THCA in the sample into THC that then can be measured.
Many in the hemp industry are critical of this method because they believe it increases the THC concentration in the sample.
West Virginia uses HPLC testing, which does not require heating and is said to give a more accurate analysis.
Farmers like Burns say this gives jurisdictions that do not conduct total THC testing a hemp market advantage.
“In West Virginia, total THC can be no more than .3 percent. If it’s above, it’s an issue,” he said. “We now have to cut our crops early.”
Farms in states that test delta-9 can allow their crops to grow longer, resulting in increased yields and more revenue.
On a recent weekend, Burns harvested his 22-acre hemp farm with his two business partners.
Kinfolk Farms had about 30,000 plants this year.
Taking into consideration some plant mortality, Burns said his farm should produce about 28,000 pounds of hemp biomass this growing season.
“We’ve tested the last 6-7 weeks. We send our samples off on a weekly basis because we want to be compliant in our program,” he said.
“The plants could continue to grow, and we could drive our CBD (cannabidiol) percentage.”
CBD is an active ingredient in cannabis that may offer a range of benefits, including reducing pain and inflammation.
Hemp, itself, is used in textiles, paper, construction materials and biofuel.
For Kinfolk Farms, cutting crops early cuts into potential profits, too.
“We as hemp farmers get paid on the volume of CBD we can produce in our plants,” Burns said. “If the plant still has the ability to go from 12 percent to 15 or 16 percent, that is more money in the pockets of West Virginia farmers.”
While farmers agree, Burns said, that there has to be a limit on THC concentration, “We would sure like to have more days.”
An ideal place to grow hemp
Another hemp farm owner in southern West Virginia told The Register-Herald, “West Virginia has proven to be the ideal place to grow a crop like hemp, yet our state is behind the times as usual.”
The farmer was afraid to go on the record for fear of backlash from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and asked to remain unnamed.
“We have an unlevel playing field,” he said.
The genetics of hemp plants, he said, were never designed to produce a total THC below three percent.
“You can test it in August and be fine. However, any product in the ground right now will have a total THC of .5 to 1 percent. That’s what they’re designed to do and that’s what the private market wants,” he said.
“I can tell you right now, if the USDA were to come out today and do a total THC standard, 95 percent of all product will be technically hot.”
He said it’s like having a cattle farmer slaughtering a steer “at 700 pounds at 50 percent maturity.”
“It’s a completely unrealistic goal to achieve, regardless of if other states are doing it.”
The farmer says the Department of Agriculture could be doing “more to help grow this industry than they’re currently doing.”
West Virginia Department of Agriculture Communications Director Crescent Gallagher says West Virginia has been working collaboratively with other states to come up with the best practices for the state’s hemp program.
Department officials, he said, surveyed 14 other states with existing industrial hemp programs including Colorado, Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey, California and Wisconsin.
All of them, according to Gallagher, use the same testing criteria as West Virginia.
He said as of late September, eight out of 136 samples in 2019 tested in excess of the .3 percent THC limit, giving West Virginia growers a 94 percent success rate.
“This hasn’t even been legal in the U.S. for a year now,” he said. “We’ve been looking to see where our guidelines mirror.
“West Virginia is actually one of the least stringent from sampling to fees, to how we test everything. It’s in line or less stringent.”
According to Gallagher, 10 states do not use the formula West Virginia is using.
“We’re testing their total THC to make sure they’re in compliance with that federal law,” he said. “If they’re above .3, they have to destroy the crop. Under federal law, it has to be under .3 THC.”
Gallagher said West Virginia has been operating in a “gray area” while it waits for the USDA and FDA to publish proposed rules for hemp and CBD products.
He’s expecting those federal agencies to release the information this fall and said WVDA officials hope to have state rules in full compliance with the federal regulations in time for the 2021 growing season.