When Travis Lane put up the capital to start his hemp business in Virginia at the beginning of 2019, the goal was to just do something different with his life.
Lane had worked in construction for more than a decade at that point, but he studied horticulture technology and landscape design in school.
“I wanted to be more into the horticultural side of things instead of the landscape design, and I was kind of looking for an out, I guess,” he told Green Market Report. “The construction and landscape construction, it’s kind of hard on the body and … on the mind. Only seasonal work, and it’s either feast or famine.”
At first, the early entry into hemp seemed like a decent way of simply growing the crop to wholesale to key partners after the government made it legal in the previous year’s Farm Bill. However, plummeting prices that first year in forced him to venture into retailing finished products from his own hemp harvest.
“Then it evolved into survival,” he said. “And I started planting products. We started doing our own extractions, and the brand just grew over the past couple of years.”
COVID-19’s arrival the next year threw a wrench in nearly everyone’s plans, but the circumstances carved a rosier path for horticultural hands looking to bring product to local stands and kickstart a new era in online direct-to-consumers sales.
By the end of 2020, Nova Hemp had its own storefront, with enough cash coming in to employ eight people including himself. The company kept adjusting with the times, eventually offering delta-8 vapes, which ended up being one of their biggest money makers.
“We were killing it,” he said.
When Virginia passed laws in 2021 allowing possession and home grow (despite having yet to establish a regulatory framework for sales), Lane’s business started taking hits from the illicit market, which he says became more prevalent in Virginia with more underground pop-up events and people driving to Washington D.C. for “gifted” weed.
“Even when the medical companies got up and going fully here, we took a pretty big hit for that as well,” he said.
But, he added, the first real existential setback finally came in 2022.
Now, Lane is fighting the commonwealth to keep his dreams – and others’ dreams – alive after a new Virginia law on hemp production signed into law this summer threatens to further derail all the progress him and other farmers in the state have built so far.
Lane and his company, Northern Virginia Hemp and Agriculture LLC, teamed up with manufacturer Franny’s Operations Inc., to challenge SB 903. The parties argued that the law unduly interferes with their ability to produce, sell, and ship their products across state lines.
“I begged other industry leaders here in the state to help me with this, but no one wanted to be involve,” he said. “No one wanted to stick their neck out there, and no one could commit,” he said.
“So, it just got to a point where I was like, okay, well, I guess I’m just going to end up spending all the money that I saved to try and fight this and see if I can keep doing this, because I’m having a lot of fun with this type of work right now.”
State officials countered in court that states have the right to regulate the production and sale of hemp within their borders. They pointed to the 2018 federal farm bill which legalized hemp nationwide but allowed states to devise their own policies on hemp products.
A key dispute in the case revolves around THC. While the 2018 federal legislation set limits on delta-9 THC, Virginia’s SB 903 also restricts other THC types, including delta-8 THC and delta-10 THC.
“Delta-8 was a perfect opportunity to give people THC that wasn’t going to get them so high and make them scared of it” Lane said. “I think that it’s good that the big players are getting involved because it’s making it more normal. But what’s bad right now is that the medical operators here in Virginia are still allowed to have all these things, and they’re selling delta-8 right now.”
He added: “It just allowed the small people to be able to have a piece of the cannabis pie.”
Despite the disagreement, no ruling regarding a potential preliminary injunction has been made since a court hearing in September. Lane and James Markels, the attorney representing the hemp companies, anticipate a decision anytime now.
“The commonwealth’s argument boils down to ‘the only way to protect minors from THC is to make it nonintoxicating,’ which is like saying that the only way to protect minors from alcohol is to only allow nonalcoholic products,” Markels told Green Market Report. “Obviously, that’s not correct.”
For now, Lane will just keep adjusting and try to keep business moving as much as he can. He said his business has gone from having 100 SKUs at its peak to 9 SKUs today.
“We’re going to try and continue businesses under the state’s rules, and if we can make it work, we’ll make it work. But unfortunately, I’ll probably have to focus my energy into other things or try and get into more of the industrial side. It does take a lot to get into something like that.”