Hemp is definitely happening these days in Western North Carolina, but it’s not just growers and retailers taking an interest in it as a commodity. Warren Wilson College planted its first crop of industrial hemp on its campus in July with an eye toward promoting the diversification of regional agriculture and providing a resource to area landowners.
The college’s inaugural planting of just over half an acre of RN-13 hemp — a short-rotation, 55- to 60-day strain — is a partnership with Green Lights Farm in Waynesville aimed at studying the success of direct seeding late-season varieties in the region. The crop, which should be ready for harvest in mid-September, will serve multiple purposes, says Dave Ellum, professor and dean of land resources at Warren Wilson.
“We’ll have some classwork around it, but it’ll also be feeding into our undergraduate research program,” Ellum explains. “All our natural science undergraduate students are required to do an undergraduate thesis, and we’ll be doing a lot of work with them, especially through the chemistry department.”
He points out that though a lot of the focus on hemp in WNC has thus far been on growing it, the college’s program will also explore product development. “For us, it’s more than marketing, it’s enterprise,” he says. “One of the things we do with all our land initiatives at the college is work with the students on developing green enterprises, looking at new market possibilities beyond just the growing of hemp, but also the utility of hemp, the materials that could come out of it, how the students could develop small-business plans around hemp.”
Ellum says the college envisions the agricultural part of the program expanding in acreage, but its overall scope is yet to be determined. Although the initiative’s roots are in research, production could ultimately be a possibility. The main goal, though, is for it to serve as a hub for sharing land management knowledge and practices with WNC farmers looking to get into the hemp market.
“We really want to do the foundational work in developing hemp as a regional agricultural product for the diversification of agriculture in the region and then serve as an outlet for folks to come and learn how they can make their land profitable,” he says
Landowners and others interested in learning more about Warren Wilson’s hemp program and land initiatives can sign up for the college’s Conservation Exchange newsletter at warren-wilson.edu/conservation-exchange and follow the group on Instagram and Facebook.