Hemp farming exploded after the 2018 Farm Bill passed last December. The bill decriminalized the plant at the federal level, opening the door for many U.S. farmers to grow and sell hemp.
Over the past year, licensed hemp acreage increased more than 445%, according to the advocacy and research group Vote Hemp. More than 510,000 acres of hemp were licensed in 2019, versus about 112,000 acres in 2018.
At the same time, products made with cannabidiol — a chemical compound found in hemp — are being sold everywhere from gas stations to CVS. CBD is promoted as a cure-all for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, even though the science isn’t there yet.
Farmers see an opportunity to get in on the “green rush.” But now, some are worried that their first harvest could leave them empty-handed.
The “green rush”
In Sperryville, Va., “there’s more cows than people,” Elizabeth Melson says. In the distance shadows lift off the Blue Ridge Mountains. Golden, crimson and scarlet ash and birch trees hiss in the wind, lining the Thornton River. Melson surveys a quarter-acre plot of hemp — the dense, Christmas-tree-looking plants shimmer in the morning light.
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Melson started farming seven years ago. Now, she manages a small farm for Sperryville eatery Off The Grid. But this is the first time Melson has grown hemp.
“We’re all in the green rush, we wanna grow for CBD,” Melson says. “It’s the most amazing, you know, hyped-up, nutraceutical on the market right now, and [I] didn’t realize how labor-intensive it was.”
Growing hemp for CBD is particularly grueling. Melson and her farmhand do everything by hand: cutting, picking and curing. They finished their harvest of 220 plants last week. To cure the hemp, the team hangs the plants from strips