By Gaen Murphree
MIDDLEBURY—While lawmakers in Montpelier argue over marijuana legalization, Middlebury dairy farmers Joel Pomainville and Sam Berthiaume are readying a harvest of a cousin of marijuana — hemp — that promoters hope could be a new cash crop for Vermont farmers. “The potential is so huge on this stuff,” said Berthiaume.
Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, who toured Pomainville and Berthiaume’s 13 acres of hemp on Monday morning, said hemp could be a supplement crop for Vermont’s dairy farmers, like maple syrup. “Some dairy farms have another cash crop like maple syrup and it adds a little bit of extra income for them,” he said. “So I’m wondering if possibly dairy farmers or other landowners could squirrel away a couple of dozen acres and be involved in this.”
Hemp Business Journal put U.S. sales of industrial hemp-based products at $688 million for 2016. The publication expects to see sales of over $1.2 billion by 2018. The raw materials fueling those sales — hemp grain, stalks, leaves and flowers — are mostly imported from other countries.
Tebbetts, Berthiaume and Pomainville aren’t alone in wondering if Vermont could grab a piece of that pie. “Why not us?” asks Vermont Hemp Company CEO Joel Bedard.
At current prices farmers can get around a dollar a pound for hemp grain, and an acre of hemp yields about 2,000 pounds, Bedard said.
Interest in growing hemp has accelerated amongst Vermont farmers. In 2014, nine farmers registered their intent to plant a total of 17 acres. This year, 91 farmers registered the intent to plant 562 acres, according to Tim Schmalz, who heads the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ hemp program.
It’s not marijuana
Federal law in 2014 separated industrial hemp from its cousin, marijuana. Industrial hemp must by definition contain less than 0.3 percent of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that gives marijuana its euphoric punch. Bottom line: hemp doesn’t get you high.
Hemp can be used for a staggering variety of food, personal care, medicinal and industrial products. Seeds can be used for cold-pressed oil, non-dairy products similar to soy milk and non-dairy yogurts and cheeses, or eaten whole. Seeds can also be used in paints, wood sealer and biofuels. Stalks can become textiles, paper, a variety of building materials, plastics, and animal bedding. Flowers can be processed for their cannabinoids, which can be used in supplements and personal care products and are considered to have medicinal properties.
“The old folks used to say, ‘You can eat everything on a pig except the squeal.’ It’s a lot like that with the hemp,” Pomainville said.
He and Berthiaume grew their hemp without pesticides or herbicides, and hemp promoters assert the plant grows well without chemical applications. Pomainville’s dairy herd and land are certified organic, which is important to Bedard and his Vermont Hemp Company. Bedard will buy the grain from this field and sell it to Victory Hemp Foods in Kentucky, which is looking to source some 5,000 acres of Vermont-grown organic hemp grain. The company processes the grain into vegetable oil, raw unshelled “hemp hearts,” flour and a protein powder. It retails primary through natural foods stores and is already on grocery store shelves across the country, Bedard said.
Bedard hopes to grow the business further in Vermont. He is looking to partner with Vermont farmers in what he’s calling a “farmer-facing business” that would remunerate farmers equitably. He said he’s also looking to build a hemp processing facility, with additional acreage for hemp-growing research.
Bedard said he’s put together about $1.8 million in financing and is looking for the right 30- to 50-acre site, and that Addison County could be an ideal place to locate his processing and research facility. “Addison County is where I want to be,” Bedard said.
Easy to grow
Pomainville and Berthiaume, partnering in this trial venture, said that this first crop has been easy to grow. “Set it and forget it,” Berthiaume said.
The cousins planted this year’s crop in a tilled field, but because of the excessive rains this summer they couldn’t get seed into the ground until July 6. While the crop isn’t growing as tall as it would in a year with an earlier planting date, the crop looks good.
Harvesting will be a possible farming challenge, noted Pomainville, because the thick stalks are likely to gum up a combine. He said he’s heard that older combines can successfully harvest hemp, and he has a 1973 wheat combine he thinks can do the job — with some likely tinkering to improve performance.
“The last time the United States harvested hemp, it did it pretty much by hand, horses and sickle bar,” Pomainville noted.
Because of federal restrictions, getting access to quality seed remains a challenge to hemp farmers nationwide. Pomainville and Berthiaume got their seed from Bedard, who had to drive to North Carolina to source it through a university. The seed itself came from France.
Tebbetts said he is taking a deeper look at the potential for hemp in Vermont and he hopes to “bring other state partners along with me on the economic development side.” Likely next steps, he said, could be getting more clarity from the federal government, talking to farm agencies in other hemp-growing states, helping to get quality seed into the state on a timely basis, and lending research and technical support for growing and harvesting. If, for example, hemp requires special harvesting machinery, the state could make that machinery available for loan, as the Extension service does for hops harvesting.
As with any ag product, “there’s the growing and then there’s the manufacturing, marketing and selling of it,” Tebbetts observed.
Not betting the farm on it yet
Despite the building momentum, hemp’s legal status remains unclear. Although the 2014 Farm Bill opened a narrow pathway to legality, Schmalz said it lacked clarity, and hemp remains regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The crop is legally sanctioned by only 17 states, including Vermont.
Farmers growing hemp in Vermont must register, pay a $25 fee, and sign a form acknowledging that “until current federal law is amended to provide otherwise cultivation and possession of hemp in Vermont is a violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act” and that “federal prosecution for growing hemp in violation of federal law may include criminal penalties, forfeiture of property, and loss of access to federal agricultural benefits, including agricultural loans, conservation programs, and insurance programs.”
Gulp. Tebbetts said state support could help there too. While his agency can’t provide “concrete assurance” that the DEA wouldn’t come after an individual farmer, Tebbetts said, “I think there might be a little more comfort with the farmers if they knew that Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture was working with them … This is about food, fuel and fiber and nothing more.”
As dairy farmers, Pomainville and Berthiaume express a range of enthusiasms for industrial hemp. Berthiaume, the driving force behind the farm’s venture into hemp growing, is unreservedly enthusiastic.
Pomainville, over a lifetime in farming, has seen a number of supposed cash crops come and go. “When we had the fallow deer craze the state was like ‘Farmers, you need to do this. This is huge.’ But it was a breeder’s crop. To buy fallow deer, a female, was like $1,200. Now you can’t give them away. The ostrich market — a fertilized egg was $250. Where’s that market now?” Pomainville observed.
Still, it’s an interesting opportunity to be at the forefront of a potential new commodity, he said. But as a commodity, he also assumes that “if it takes off, then it’ll [eventually] go down. It was like that in Canada. When it first started it was huge. Now farmers are making an average of like $250 net an acre.
“If it takes off, it takes off. I’m not betting the farm on it,” Pomainville said.
Photo by Trent Campbell
Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts (left rear) tours 13 acres of hemp in Middlebury.