Vermont's Third Hemp-Growing Season: More Acreage, New Products

May 16, 2016

Farmers have started planting Vermont’s third hemp crop. Though their numbers are few, the acreage devoted to hemp has significantly increased this year, as has the direction of the state’s fledgling hemp industry.

A survey conducted by this reporter of hemp growers registered with the Agency of Agriculture indicates that around 60 acres of industrial hemp are being planted this year, dwarfing the acreage previously cultivated in Vermont – but still tiny compared to states such as Kentucky and Colorado, where thousands of acres are being grown.

This year, hemp is being farmed in more than a dozen locations around Vermont, from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts state line.

In Hardwick, a company called Green Mountain CBD is planting 5 acres of hemp that will be used to manufacture a dietary supplement rich in CBD, or cannabidiol. CBD is thought to be effective in preventing epileptic seizures and pain from arthritis.

Alejandro Bergad, the CEO of Green Mountain CBD, served as chief agricultural officer at a Colorado hemp farm and has been breeding hemp seeds in Hardwick.

“There seems to be some kind of gold rush around CBD oil,” Bergad says. “It actually does help people and I think a lot of people are trying as hard as they can to capitalize on that. We see ourselves as a small business. Our genetics and our breeding program allow us to sort of sell the picks and the shovels for the gold rush."

"Our genetics and our breeding program allow us to sort of sell the picks and the shovels for the [cannabidiol] gold rush." - Alejandro Bergad, Green Mountain CBD

Morgan Laurent, a former construction worker from Montreal, owns a farm in Holland near the Canadian border. He bought hemp seed from Green Mountain CBD and says he’s planting 10 or more acres of hemp, also with the intent of making CBD oil. (CBD has no psychoactive effect and will not get you high.)

Four other Vermont growers are raising hemp with an eye on the CBD market, which had sales of $65 million last year, according to the Hemp Industries Association. The FDA forbids companies from making health claims about CBD dietary supplements – but GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company, has reported encouraging results of clinical trials of Epidolex, an epilepsy drug made from CBD. GW Pharmaceuticals will apply for FDA approval for Epidolex next year. 

But not all Vermont hemp growers are focused on CBD. Some have hopes of selling food for humans and animals.

The University of Vermont agronomist Heather Darby will plant 2 acres of hemp at the Borderview research farm in Alburgh later this month. The farm is aptly named: It’s located across a dirt road from the Quebec border. UVM is the first university in the Northeast to do hemp research.

University of Vermont agronomist Heather Darby stands in front of a planting machine at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh. UVM is the first university in the Northeast to do hemp research, and is running Kickstarter campaign to raise more money for its efforts.
Credit Jon Kalish for VPR

“We’ll actually extrude the oil out of the seed once we harvest it and look at oil content and quality and then how to best utilize the meal, which is actually what’s left after you extrude the oil out of the seed,” Darby says.

Darby was unable to secure state funds for hemp research, but she’s managed to raise more than $12,000 in foundation money. And UVM has a crowdfunding effort under way to raise $15,000 for hemp research.

“If people want the research to happen, this is how it’s going to happen,” Darby says.

Sterling College is also getting involved in hemp, working with a growers co-op called The Family Green. The group includes the State Line Farm in Shaftsbury, where the first of some 20 acres of hemp have been planted.

Farmer John Williamson has been growing seed crops and making biodiesel there for more than 10 years and has an oil press and a de-huller. Williamson is joined by Robin Alberti, Ken Manfredi, who has grown a small hemp plot in Vermont during the past two years, and Doug Fine, the New Mexico-based goat farmer and hemp activist.

Members of the Shaftsbury hemp growers co-op The Family Green unload hemp seed from Colorado. From left, Robin Alberti, Ken Manfredi and Doug Fine. The co-op is working with Sterling College, which is interested in hemp textiles and animal feed, and is also planning use a small proportion of its hemp for CBD.
Credit The Family Green

Only an acre or two of the hemp grown in Shaftsbury will be used for CBD. The rest will likely be used for textiles and food. Williamson said he’s already in contact with a wool processor in upstate New York about the possibility of using the fiber from his hemp crop to make cloth. 

Sterling professor Charlotte Rosendahl says the college, which has a fiber arts program, is interested in the textile uses of hemp and also the possibility that hemp may can be as animal feed in Vermont.

“We have a tough time growing all our own feed for animals,” said Rosendahl. “This is something we want to explore. If hemp grows as well as it should, we have the opportunity to grow a feed crop that’s probably better than growing corn, both for the environment and the nutrition it’s going to give the animals.”

"If hemp grows as well as it should, we have the opportunity to grow a feed crop that's probably better than growing corn." - Charlotte Rosendahl, Sterling College

A small patch of hemp will be grown in the Intervale section of Burlington by Dylan Raap, whose father founded the Gardener's Supply Company and the Intervale Center. The younger Raap will be growing hemp in greenhouses at two other locations: one on the Killington area and the other somewhere in Chittenden County. The greenhouse crops are for research into CBD production. 

“Vermont absolutely has the opportunity to create a boutique hemp and cannabis industry just as we have created highly artisanal industries in maple syrup, cheeses and craft beer,” said Raap. “People who can demonstrate that they can grow hemp legally under the existing hemp program may very well have a leg up in the coming cannabis industry.”

And Raap thinks that industry is definitely coming. He thinks that with referenda this fall in Maine and Massachusetts to legalize recreational marijuana, the future for both marijuana and its cousin industrial hemp is promising. He’s opening a store on Pine Street in Burlington next month that will sell supplies for growing all forms of cannabis as well as classes on hemp cultivation.