The hemp harvest has begun
BRISTOL — The industrial hemp harvest has begun.
On a gray chilly day last week in northern Bristol, Eric Durand and John Murphy crisscrossed Route 116 in a red Polaris Ranger, hauling cut hemp plants from fields on the east side of the road to the impromptu processing facility set up by Leaning Barn Farm on the west side.
Durand and Murphy unloaded the harvested plants wherever there was room — on the ground, inside one of the high tunnels or on top of pizza boxes that had been laid out on a makeshift table, the remnants of that day’s lunch.
Leaning Barn Farm planted 45,000 industrial hemp plants on 40 acres this summer, and its crew has been harvesting them by hand — with loppers, weed trimmers with beaver blade attachments or, in some knotty burly cases, chainsaws.
“We’re 10 days to two weeks into the harvest and we probably have about a month to go,” said Durand, who owns No Excuses, a hemp consulting business, and is acting as an advisor to the farm.
Like its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, industrial hemp smells “skunky.” Depending on whom you ask, the odor is reminiscent of mint or pine forest or manure or garbage or a Van Halen concert in 1989.
Inside a humid hemp-processing facility the smell can seem overpowering to the uninitiated, but after 10 days, Leaning Barn’s crew doesn’t seem bothered by it.
During processing, the plants’ branches are clipped from their stalks and fed into a “bucker,” which removes the leaves and flowers.
After the leaves and flowers are dried in large propane-powered grain dryers, they get separated from one another in a trimming machine.
The flowers, which are the cash crop, are then stored in a cool, dry place.
Leaning Barn will sell some of those flowers to processors who will press them for the chemical compound cannabidiol (CBD), which is purported to be effective in addressing epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia and a host of other conditions.
Others will get sold directly to consumers for “smokeable” CBD.
“Smokeable flowers for CBD are basically like organic Tylenol,” said Leaning Barn’s owner, Randy Russell.
The smokeable flowers aren’t likely to get anyone “high,” however, at least not in the way that marijuana’s do. Unlike its cousin, industrial hemp is bred for extremely low concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s psychoactive component.
Hemp plants grow about three inches a day and must be harvested before they’re so full of colas (flowers) that the branches start to break. Because of their vaguely pyramidal shape they occasionally get mistaken for Christmas trees.
“We planted a lot of different strains,” Russell said. “With the exception of one or two, whose germination probably suffered from the cool, wet spring, they’ve done really well.”
Leaning Barn isn’t the only operation wading into the state’s burgeoning hemp industry.
As of July 15 of this year, more than 800 operations had registered to grow hemp on nearly 8,000 acres around the state.
Most of them are growing hemp for CBD oil.
One of the things that makes Leaning Barn’s story different is its funding scheme.
“We raised about $450,000 through social media and other channels,” Russell said. “In about 30 days.”
They were able to do this in part by leveraging Russell’s status as DJ Mashtodon, one of the most respected turntablists in Vermont.
Under that moniker he has performed from New York to Los Angeles, opening for acts like Wu Tang Clan, Common and Slick Rick. He provides exclusive services for Burton Snowboards and holds club residencies in Burlington and Stowe.
But “home” for Russell is — and in some ways always has been — this farm. He grew up here, back when it was known as Fuller’s Dairy. A graduate of Mount Abraham Union High School, he eventually “fell in love with a girl” and moved to Barre. Earlier this year, Russell purchased the Fuller Farm from his grandfather, and the couple moved here with their young child.
There’s no more dairy, so Russell changed the name to Leaning Barn, in honor of one of its buildings.
“We’re going to fix this place up,” he said. “We’re working on the house right now and we’re going to renovate the barns and move them back from the road.”
Eventually, he’d like Leaning Barn Farm to be a community-oriented place, he said.
“We’re thinking of having events here and maybe a pick-your-own hemp operation,” he explained. “It would also be great to have some kind of walkway that connects us to Gateway Farm (to the South) and Mary’s (the Inn at Baldwin Creek, to the north).”
But for now, he’s concentrating on getting the harvest in.
Thanks to Durand, who also happens to be Russell’s longtime friend, things at Leaning Barn Farm seem to be going smoothly.
“Going into hemp was kind of a last-minute decision for us and a lot of people didn’t think we could pull it off this year,” Russell said. “They thought we planted too late or that we needed more people to get it done.”
But so far the naysayers have been proven wrong, Russell said.
“I absolutely could not have done this without my investors, though.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.