Top 10: Promise of hemp not yet realized
Vermont agriculture’s new big thing — industrial hemp — suffered from some growing pains in 2019, though hope remained by year’s end that the abundantly useful plant could still make important contributions to the state’s farming economy.
Many hemp enthusiasts had been looking forward to this year since 2013, when the state legislature legalized limited hemp production in Vermont.
At the time, lawmakers were hoping to give future Vermont planters a leg up when the federal government finally got around to legalizing the crop nationwide. For that, they waited another five years.
In July 2018 — before the Farm Bill passed — there were 344 registered hemp growers in Vermont, including 34 in Addison County.
In July of this year — after the Farm Bill passed — there were 794 growers statewide. The number in Addison County had more than tripled from the previous year, to 104. Those numbers would climb even higher before the 2019 hemp season came to an end.
But as registrations soared so did concerns that hemp production would outstrip demand and depress prices, leaving new planters with little, if any, return on investment.
As a result, a few of hemp’s early adopters made early exits from the market.
Former Middlebury grower Joel Pomainville, who had planted 13 acres of hemp in 2017, and whose partner, Sam Berthiaume, had suggested at the time that “the potential is so huge on this stuff,” decided not to plant in 2019, predicting that the market would be flooded.
Most of the county’s farmers planting hemp this year were focused on processing the flowers (or selling them to processors) for the chemical compound cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is purported to be effective in addressing epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia and a host of other conditions.
Planters were far less focused on hemp seed oil or the seeds themselves, however.
Because of that lack of interest, Victory Hemp Foods decided after barely a year in Middlebury to pack it up and move much of its equipment back to Kentucky.
By late summer, as hemp seedlings evolved into their iconic Christmas tree shapes and farmers began preparing for the harvest, prices had begun to fall — from as much as $150 pound last year to as low as $20 a pound this year, according to some reports.
Producers who had secured contracts with processors before planting — or who were doing their own processing — were likely to see better returns on their investments, according to state officials and industry experts.
Then, with the harvest well under way, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its proposed rules establishing a federal domestic hemp program, which would impose much stricter standards on the crop than those prescribed in Vermont.
At issue was tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that appears naturally, in very low concentrations, in industrial hemp plants, but which in higher concentrations puts the “recreation” in recreational marijuana, hemp’s cannabis cousin.
Vermont rules classify “industrial hemp” as cannabis containing no more than 1% THC by dry weight, but the USDA has suggested that number should be 0.3%. If federal rules had taken effect this season, they could theoretically have eliminated more than half of Vermont’s hemp production.
More unpleasant news made headlines a month later: The owner of a Waterbury-based company called CBD-Vermont was arrested for failing to pay hemp farmers for their harvests. In all, 15 growers alleged that they had suffered a half-million dollars in losses.
At season’s end the Vermont Agency of Agriculture sent out surveys to hemp planters statewide, but it’s still too early to tell how the 2019 harvest turned out.
Still, some signs pointed to continued confidence in the industry’s future.
Late last month, Kimball Brook Farm of North Ferrisburgh announced that it would be closing down its organic dairy operation and focusing instead on hemp and CBD-infused iced tea and lemonade.