Charlottesville-based horse bedding importer Old Dominion Hemp picked up its first client at a horse show less than a year ago and last month moved about 4,000 bales of its unique stable liner.
The bedding, which Old Dominion imports from a supplier in Europe, consists of the ground-up hurd — the core of the stalk — from hemp plants.
Business founder Marty Phipps said his bedding is so absorbent that it can last up to five times as long as its pine or straw counterpart. The remainder of the hemp plant can be used for food, clothing fiber, biodiesel and as an ingredient in eco-friendly plastic.
But the plant, which was cultivated in the country’s early years by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, has a bad family reputation that until recently made it illegal to cultivate commercially in the U.S.
Hemp, a close relative of marijuana, is listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act and contains trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in its psychoactive cousin.
Proponents of the plant call the connection an unfair case of guilt-by-association and say that legal barriers to hemp cultivation are a lost economic opportunity.
The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill changed the rules to allow state universities to grow small crops of the plant but left it on the banned substances list.
Virginia in 2015 passed its first measure allowing state institutions to research hemp, and in 2016 passed a law to require the commissioner of agriculture to develop a licensure program for anyone wanting to grow the plant “for any lawful purpose.”
The only lawful purpose currently recognized by the state is research.
Phipps, who is also the Central Virginia regional director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, plans to lobby Congress next week to change that.
“Agriculture and farmers are what we need to achieve greatness,” Phipps said in his warehouse last week. “The fact is that we are importing millions of dollars’ worth of hemp, and that is money that could be going into American pockets.”
Phipps, who sends bales of horse bedding around the U.S. from a small warehouse in a Waynesboro industrial complex, said his goal is for Old Dominion Hemp to buy and process raw hemp from American farmers.
“Right now, we are focusing just on bedding, but we do have other opportunities, such as hemp seed horse treats,” he said. “Our goal is for Virginia to get in line and have farmers grow for us and be able to revitalize some areas that are floundering.”
Last year, Virginia State University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech all grew hemp research crops. The schools planted a total of 37 acres of the crop, and the state licensed 29 individuals to cultivate it, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture website.
The department solicited proposals from institutions interested in researching hemp, said Erin Williams, a senior policy analyst with the department, and got four responses.
The extent of the state’s research into hemp is hemmed in by the federal regulations, she said.
“The state law could change, but it would still have to operate within the parameters of the federal law,” she said.
Jason Amatucci, executive director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, said he is impatient with the commonwealth’s progress.
“[Hemp research] is going to have to go above and beyond just a few people in universities gaining experience,” he said. “We are making a huge mistake not getting out ahead of this.”
States like Kentucky, he said, are far ahead of Virginia in developing hemp as a viable crop.
Kentucky’s department of agriculture has approved 209 licenses for hemp research this year, for a total of more than 12,000 planted acres.
Williams said she was not familiar enough with Kentucky state law to comment on its research practices.
Apart from the lost economic opportunity, Amatucci said he is tired of the stigma around hemp.
“We are not criminals. We are law-abiding citizens, and it is disrespectful not to treat us as such,” he said. “We need to change how hemp is perceived and treated.”
Leaving that stigma behind, Phipps said, is going to be a matter of education, continued research and legislation.
“The biggest thing is going to be education, you know, people learning that their horse isn’t going to get high,” he said. “That will be key to getting this product into the mainstream.”