Virginia hemp growers face rash of crop thefts
EMPORIA, Va. — Quinton Powell and a friend were patrolling his family’s industrial hemp farm in a pickup one night last month when they discovered a group of men ripping plants from the ground and placing them into the back of a truck.
When he confronted the group, one of the men raised a handgun and started firing. Several bullets struck Quinton’s truck, narrowly missing his head, and the man continued to shoot as 24-year-old Quinton and his friend fled. Miraculously, no one was injured.
His father, who raced to the field when called, was stunned. It’s their first year raising hemp.
“I had no idea that they were willing to take somebody’s life over a d— few little plants,” said Kenny Powell, 52.
The Sept. 19 incident was the most serious in a recent rash of hemp thefts that have stunned farmers and law enforcement officials in southern Virginia. In March, the state legislature legalized the commercial production of industrial hemp, and more than 1,000 farmers quickly registered to grow it. More than 2,000 acres were planted statewide, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
But the crop’s arrival has been a boon for thieves and marijuana dealers who have targeted farms in Greensville, Brunswick and Dinwiddie counties, law enforcement officials said. While some have mistaken the pungent, flowery plants for marijuana, police said drug dealers are stealing hemp to mix it with illegal cannabis and boost their profits.
“I’m not surprised a lot of this has happened,” said Maj. William B. Knott of the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s been an ongoing problem.”
Since this season’s crop began to mature a month and a half ago, police in Greensville and Dinwiddie have arrested more than 20 people in connection with hemp thefts. Following the shooting on the Powells’ farm, the Greensville County Sheriff’s Office staked out their fields, hoping to catch someone in the act.
It worked. Five days later, deputies caught two men from Petersburg, a city about 40 miles north of the Powells. The confrontation led to a high-speed chase through downtown Emporia, which sits about 10 miles north of the Carolina border. The men crashed their vehicle in a Walmart parking lot and fled on foot. They were quickly caught, and police recovered a handgun.
Many of those arrested are from across the region — Petersburg, Norfolk, even Charlotte, N.C. When police checked the cell phone messages of one man charged, they discovered he had sent the location of the Powells’ farm to friends across the state. He’d spotted the roadside field while driving.
“It’s going to keep happening,” said Detective Chris Rook of the Greensville County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s too tempting for them.”
Twelve people were arrested in connection with thefts from a single Dinwiddie farm.
“I guess the word is out,” Knott said.
After a series of thefts in Brunswick County, Sheriff Brian Roberts stationed deputies at a hemp field for several nights before making an arrest. Some farmers in the region have resorted to installing wildlife cameras in their fields to record any criminal activity, he said.
“I think all of this is new, and I think everybody is trying to learn what are the pros and cons, and what are the precautions” of raising hemp,” he said.
Hemp theft has been reported in other parts of Virginia this year, but several state officials expressed surprise last week at the size of the problem in the southern part of the state. The agriculture department is eager to help farmers protect their hemp, but the thefts are mostly a law enforcement issue, said Erin Williams, a senior policy analyst coordinating the state’s hemp program.
“I know it’s frustrating for these growers to have to battle this component connected to this industry,” she said. “We encourage applicants to be mindful of where they plant their crop.”
For decades, hemp cultivation was illegal in the United States, but for the last several years, states have been permitted to raise it for research purposes. The market opened, however, when the federal government removed hemp from its list of controlled substances and legalized its production in the 2018 Farm Bill.
In response, the Virginia legislature also legalized production. Hemp is a form of cannabis sativa, along with marijuana, but growers are required to limit its THC level to 0.3 percent. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana that can make users high. Regulators will force farmers to destroy a hemp crop whose THC level exceeds that limit. The crop can be processed into many products, including rope, building materials, auto parts, animal feed, cosmetics, oil and food additives.
Though there’s no national data yet, theft across the country appears to be common. Some incidents have also led to threats and violence. In Fresno County, Calif., where hemp theft has reportedly been a growing problem this year, a man threatened a farmer with a gun before driving away with stolen hemp on Sept. 27. Days later, police said, a group of more than 15 people invaded his farm to steal again. No arrests were reported.
In Pulaski County, Ky., a farmer reportedly captured a thief at gunpoint with a trash bag of stolen hemp on Sept. 22. Police arrested that man. Later that night, they returned to the farm for another burglary call and arrested two others.
Erica Stark, executive director at the National Hemp Association, said she’s surprised at the rash of recent crimes. “This is the first I’m hearing about it on a bigger scale,” she said.
Hemp production nationwide is growing quickly. About 32,000 acres of industrial hemp were planted nationwide in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, more than 144,000 acres have been recorded as of Oct. 1. Up to 47 states now permit some form of cultivation.
“We’ve seen expansion everywhere,” Stark said.
That growth is likely driving the increase in crime, she said. Thieves could also be stealing the plants for the hemp flowers, which, alone, can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound.
“It’s a shame this is a conversation that we even need to be having, but it is happening,” she said. “What the ultimate solution is, I don’t know.”
The Virginia thefts were a concern last week for Maryland agricultural officials who oversee the state’s hemp research program. More than 60 farmers, partnered with local universities, registered to grow about 1,400 acres of hemp in Maryland this year, said Jim Drews, program manager for the agriculture department’s turf and seed section. The state is waiting for final federal guidelines on hemp production before allowing farmers to grow independently.
Drews said he hadn’t heard of any farmers dealing with serious theft issues. But that could change soon, said Andrew Ristvey, a University of Maryland Extension agent working with the program.
“This is exactly what (we) were very worried about,” he said. “If that’s happening, then our local farmers are going to feel this too.”
It’s one reason the state agriculture department advised hemp farmers to plant in secluded areas, he said.
Hemp theft in southern Virginia has died down since law enforcement officials made their arrests. Prosecutions in those cases have not started, Knott said, but he hopes they send a message to potential thieves looking to target vulnerable fields.
He’s also looking forward to the end of hemp season.
“We’re doing some proactive patrols (around fields), which we did, are doing and will continue to do until we harvest the crop, which I hope will be very soon,” he said.
In Emporia, the Powells have chosen to take security into their own hands. Every night since the shooting, Quinton, his 26-year-old brother, Kaleb Powell, or Kenny sit in the fields, armed, monitoring the darkness.
The crop has been a savior. Due to the trade war between the United States and China, the Powells lost long-held, overseas tobacco contracts in the spring, placing their multi-generational farm at risk. He partnered with a friend to grow hemp, which they’re processing into CBD oil for the retail market.
He grew 200 acres this year and expects he’ll raise more in the future.
“If it hadn’t been for this hemp, they would have sold every d— thing I ever worked for in my life,” Kenny said.
He was standing watch over his field in the dark with an assault rifle strapped to his chest. When he imagines the shooting, it still shocks him.
“I’m a red-blooded, American farmer, and my daddy taught to me shoot, and I taught my boys to shoot, but I never thought we’d have to tote a gun here and worry about getting killed,” he said.
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