Cautiously, Hemp Crops Take Root In Vt.

Aug 5, 2014

Growing hemp is legal in Vermont under legislation that Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law last year, though federal law does still define hemp as a controlled substance. A dozen Vermonters have registered with the Agency of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp, and few of them were able to procure seeds for planting this spring.

Industrial hemp can be used to make edible oil, fabric, paper, rope, even a form of concrete and a plastic composite used in car doors. Like any other crop, you have to have seeds, soil and water to grow it. Hemp farmers have plenty of soil and water but getting seeds has been a little more complicated. A homesteader in Panton who registered as a hemp grower told VPR he didn’t plant this year because his efforts to get seeds from Canada, where hemp farming has been legal for 16 years, did not pan out.

Robb Kidd, formerly with Rural Vermont, says some people interested in hemp farming have found seeds in the wild. “I have heard some Vermonters have harvested feral hemp here in Vermont,” says Kidd. “There’s been patches of feral hemp growing for the last 40 years. Some people have harvested those seeds to grow.”

The three hemp plots our reporter visited were all started with seed sold by Europeans and shipped here illegally, including the hemp seeds that Netaka White managed to get France. “This is our humble hemp patch,” says White, gesturing to the area outside his home in Salisbury where he planted 1.5 ounces of seed. “It measures about eight by eight [feet].  I don’t even know what percentage of an acre that is.”

White expects to get 12 or more pounds of seed when he harvests his hemp crop in late September and he’ll use that to grow even more hemp next year. Most of the Vermont hemp farmers seem resigned that this first crop will go towards establishing a seed supply.

White is co-owner of a company called Full Sun that presses seed into oil.  He doesn’t expect to start pressing Vermont-grown hemp seeds until the fall of 2016 at a production facility Full Sun plans to open in Addison County.

A VPR survey of the dozen Vermonters registered with the Agency of Agriculture to grow hemp found that at least five of them have decided not to grow this year. (The agency says it has no idea how many are actually growing.) For some of the would-be hemp farmers the anxiety over the legality of hemp was the reason. One Vermont farmer who registered with the state told VPR he planted hemp seeds and then tore the young plants from the soil, worried that a bust would affect his girlfriend’s high-profile PR job.

A farmer in Springfield who registered was afraid the hemp seeds sold online might have a THC content that exceeds Vermont’s maximum of 0.3 percent. THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana responsible for the high. Another farmer who registered told us that a lot of industrial hemp has a THC level of one percent, which is not enough to get you high but is enough to violate Vermont’s law, so he decided not to plant this year. The Agency of Agriculture says it has no plans at the moment to test for THC content.

Will Allen, a longtime hemp advocate in Thetford, decided not to plant out of fear that the feds might confiscate his Cedar Circle Farm. He investigated the possibility of leasing land to grow hemp on, but that didn’t pan out.

In the hills outside of Rutland, one hemp farmer managed to lease some land for his first crop. “We were able to find some people that were willing to lease the land to us. And they’re behind us, you know,” says the farmer. He asked that VPR not use his name or mention the town where his hemp patch is growing.

He has only a quarter-acre of the 20 acres he’s leading under cultivation. He says that if all goes well this year, he may plant all 20 acres next year. “I’m more excited than I am anxious,” the farmer says. “I think this is just a great opportunity for this state and this country to really make some strides, environmentally and economically. And I think the people want this.”

The anxiety over where the federal government’s stand on hemp farming has caused the University of Vermont to hold off planting hemp this year for research purposes. UVM agronomist Heather Darby says once the legal cloud hanging over hemp farming is resolved, a research plot of an acre or smaller could be planted at the UVM Extension farm in Alburgh as early as next spring. Tris Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, declined to comment on the record about his stance on hemp farming in the state but observers say Coffin’s office has made heroin and opiate cases a much higher priority than marijuana prosecutions.

On an 80-acre homestead in the Northeast Kingdom, a young couple raises pigs, chickens and all of their own vegetables. They planted a 25 square-foot patch of hemp in their garden. They, too, asked that we not use their names. The homesteaders live fairly close to the Quebec border. “I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer of anything,” the farmer says. “It’s part of our environment. Part of our growing systems, living systems is growing hemp. And I have the opportunity to do it, so I’m going to do it.” This homesteader and his wife spend winter months away from Vermont rigging traditional sailing ships, which means they know quite a bit about rope. “One of the reasons why hemp is such a great rope-making material is that it can grow 12 feet tall,” he says, “and then you have 12-foot long pieces of fiber, which make really strong rope.”  Last winter the couple went to Sweden and made rope from hemp using equipment and a process developed in the nineteenth century. They hope to make rope one day out of Vermont-grown hemp fiber.  “We want to re-learn how to grow it for fiber and we want to re-learn how to make it into rope so that that tradition isn’t lost,” she says. “Whether we’ll ever be able to make a living making hemp rope? I mean, probably not. Who knows?” But he says it’s worth it to keep the skills alive. “And when the world’s ready for it, we want still have that knowledge available.

A hemp industry trade group estimates that last year Americans spent more than a half billion dollars on hemp foods, cosmetics and other products. And here’s another way hemp farming can possibly benefit Vermont agriculture: after the seeds are pressed for the oil, the left over seed meal can be used as animal feed. Netaka White of the Full Sun oil seed company says that in addition to pressing hemp seed oil, he plans to sell seed meal to Vermont famers. “We’re at the beginning in Vermont of a whole new industry that hasn’t existed in this state for 60 to 70 years,” says White. “Most people who are putting seeds in the ground are realistic in what it’s going to take to kickstart this new agricultural sector.”

In addition to Vermont, hemp crops have been planted in Kentucky and Colorado this year.