What is the reality of hemp cultivation in West Virginia?

“Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top, dirt’s too rocky by far… that’s why all them folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar”

We certainly have our share of rocks and hills (and corn liquor!) in West Virginia as well, but can we really grow hemp here?

A student at Marshall University has performed a “hemp suitability” analysis [Cannoy (2015)] as part of his graduate studies in the Department of Geography through use of GIS tools and empirical data on climate, precipitation, slope and land use.   I have suspected something akin to the conclusion of the song quote above but had not seen any actual data and arguments to back this up … only parts of WV are ideal for growing hemp.  But where? Why?

 

“A general assumption was that hemp cultivation areas would be plentiful in West
Virginia because of the favorable climate and existing vegetation cover, which has proven not to be the case.”
— Cannoy (2015)

There are real-world limitations to growing hemp that are directly related to WV’s physical features.  Elevation and slope are the most important (as everywhere in the state pretty much gets sufficient sunlight and precipitation). 

The plant requires about 3,300 growing-degree days, which is supported everywhere in the state except the central area – which can support two annual hemp crops.

 Cannoy (2015)

Cannoy (2015)

 

Elevation can impact fiber quality, so hemp grown for seed production is perhaps a better bet at higher elevations.  So sorry, Davis [see list of highest cities in the USA], you might have to settle for seed production as opposed fiber production. Same for you Rocky Top.

And then there’s slope. We are the Mountain State after all and slopes greater than 35° are not “feasible to farm due to problems harvesting the product.”  In fact, it is suggested in the analysis that farmers not use slopes exceeding 5% for fiber cultivation.  The greater the slope, the smaller your potential for cultivating fiber biomass.

Cannoy sifted all the state data on slope and elevation, etc. together and tried to pinpoint the areas in the state that are suitable for hemp seed or fiber production.  Here’s what he found:

  • Total acreage in WV for raw agricultural hemp production is roughly 3.6 million acres, or 23.5% of the total area of the state (which is 15.5 million acres)
  • When one factors in actual land use, this drops suitable acreage significantly – down to just under 3% (or 448,126 acres).  Much of this 448k are in historic coal mining areas, where acid mine drainage is present.  (This represents both an opportunity and a limitation.)
 Cannoy (2015)

Cannoy (2015)

 

The analysis supports the historic knowledge that Appalachian soils and climate are ideal for the Cannabis plant and shows that West Virginia does have good potential to support a hemp-based industries to operate. However, it will require working hand-in-hand with local planners (city and County) and agricultural boards to maximize the potential for hemp cultivation on the local level.  This is now made possible by the excellent local analyses presented in Mr. Cannoy’s thesis.

These data provided in the report argue for a distributed model of sustainable agriculture in the state whereby the amount of acreage that can be devoted to hemp production are local decisions, to be empowered by resources and interests driven at the local level.  For example, let’s look at the Eastern Panhandle where I live.

 Cannoy (2015)

Cannoy (2015)

 

Spots that meet altitude and slope requirements are pinpointed along with incorporated and potentially contaminated areas.  This type of granular data is critical to empower local decision-making coalitions with the information they need to maximize hemp production on the regional level.  Clearly, as Mr. Cannoy points out, urban planners are absolutely critical to this effort and the use of GIS tools such as these are critical to helping to grow our nascent industry.  In addition, many localities in the state establish “Comprehensive Plans” and these are ideal vehicles to codify local interest and intent in hemp cultivation.  Planners and local governments should work together to modify these plans to expand use of sustainable agriculture, such as hemp production.

There are indeed limitations to the study and other ways to interpret the data.  As an advocate for the use of the Cannabis sativa plant as both a preventive medicine (to reduce inflammation and to protect the brain from its effects) and a way to combat treatable conditions (such as chronic pain, PTSD, addiction, severe pediatric epilepsy disorders, etc.), the potential for medicinal hemp applications may in fact greatly outweigh the potential for its use as a source of seed of fiber. 

The presence of cannabinoids useful for medical purposes may not affected by slope, altitude, etc. and this supports the ability of patients to cultivate their own medicine on some 3 million acres in West Virginia.

Not bad. Let’s grow our future, West Virginia.

 

Source: “Green Gold- a Cannabis Sativa L. Lucis Suitability Analysis for West Virginia,” by Delbert Christopher Cannoy in partial satisfaction of a MS in Geography from Marshall University. December 2015.