Vermont Hemp Farmers Find Fertile Ground in CBD Crop | Agriculture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Hemp Farmers Find Fertile Ground in CBD Crop

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Rye Matthews of Vermont Hemp Co. at Quarry Road Farm’s hemp field in Middlebury - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Rye Matthews of Vermont Hemp Co. at Quarry Road Farm’s hemp field in Middlebury

A roomy, red-sided milking parlor remains the focal point of Quarry Road Farm, just as it has since Joel Pominville's father founded it in 1953. But there's a new addition this year to the 180-head Middlebury dairy operation. On a 13-acre field where corn used to grow, the first crop of hemp is nearly ready for harvest.

"Hemp is easy to grow," Pominville said. "If the money looks good and it looks like the future is good, probably we'll end up selling the herd down to an easy management."

Sam Berthiaume, his cousin and partner, put it more bluntly.

"We're looking for a future," he said. "There's no money in cows."

Quarry Road Farm is not alone in viewing hemp as a new business opportunity. From generations-old dairy operations to upstart agricultural enterprises, Vermonters are climbing aboard the hemp bandwagon. The number of farmers filing for state hemp-cultivation permits — at an annual cost of $25 — leapfrogged from 29 last year to 87 so far this year, according to the state Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

Farmers say the hemp-farming movement is driven in large part by an explosion of interest in CBD, or cannabidiol, a chemical compound found in cannabis.

Unlike its close cousin, marijuana, hemp is high in CBD but contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical compound that gets users high. And unlike marijuana, it's been legal to grow hemp under state law since 2013. While cultivation remains illegal under federal law, authorities haven't targeted growers.

An increasing number of users have been persuaded that CBD can ease ailments from anxiety and arthritis to cancer and seizures. While the federal Food and Drug Administration prohibits producers from making curative claims, the market is exploding with Vermont-made, CBD-infused goods. And that industry is expanding beyond specialty stores, into the mainstream.

"It seems like I find out about a new CBD producer every few weeks," said Ever Green Capital Management partner Dan Chang, who is growing 1,000 hemp plants in Charlotte for research and development purposes with Gardener's Supply founder Will Raap.*

Excitement over this burgeoning industry was palpable last Saturday in the halls of the Burke Mountain Hotel & Conference Center during the inaugural Vermont Hemp Fest. Several hundred people converged to learn more about farming, testing and producing hemp products.

As farmers, scientists and entrepreneurs spoke to a conference room full of people about the growing demand for hemp, Kimball Brook Farm and the Vermont Hemp Company quietly unveiled bottles of their brand-new, CBD-infused iced tea at a festival display table.

The tea, selling for $5 a pint, vied for attention with dozens of other Vermont-made CBD products launched in the last year, including deodorant, maple candy and kombucha, as well as salves, lip balm and massage oil.

Rye Matthews is a consultant with the Vermont Hemp Company, a research and development firm based in Jericho, and the soon-to-be son-in-law of Kimball Brook Farm owners J.D. and Cheryl DeVos of Ferrisburgh. He said iced tea, which the dairy company already sells without CBD, is its first stab at using the chemical compound in a product.

"If there's interest, they're open to more," he said of Kimball Brook. That could include CBD-infused milk and butter, he said, evidence of just how mainstream this movement is becoming.

Consumer interest in CBD is also exploding, according to Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, co-owner of Healthy Living Market & Café in South Burlington. He called the speed with which so many CBD products have come onto the market "unprecedented."

Hemp Registrants in Vermont, 2013-2017
  • Hemp Registrants in Vermont, 2013-2017

CBD milk and butter from a dairy haven such as Vermont would likely find a niche on store shelves, but Lesser-Goldsmith was less confident about iced tea.

"Like every trend, only the strong survive," he said.

Farmers acknowledge that unanswerable questions abound about the industry: How solid will the market be? Which hemp strains will catch on? Will the federal government maintain its hands-off approach? Still, they are eager to get in during the early stages of something that could be big.

"Everything is still happening," Hemp Fest organizer Eli Harrington told the audience at one of the event's breakout sessions. "This is a Vermont product with a national market."

Brian Voigt, a research professor at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, watched from the back of the room as Harrington spoke.

"I see hemp having a market potential to be the thing that's the difference between keeping a farm and losing a farm in future generations," Voigt, who is working with the Vermont Hemp Company, told Seven Days.

Vermont is one of more than a dozen states where hemp is legal to grow. Its proximity to large Northeast markets, combined with its wholesome image, makes Vermont an ideal location to become a leader in the food-related hemp trend, according to Chad Rosen, founder of Kentucky-based Victory Hemp Foods.

Rosen said he is working with Vermont Hemp Company founder Joel Bedard to establish a hemp processing facility in the Green Mountain State. Bedard said he is eyeing sites in southern Chittenden and northern Addison counties.

"It's an extremely transformative opportunity," said Bedard, whose company is buying hemp from farmers around the state, including Quarry Road in Middlebury.

For many of those getting into hemp farming, the work is part business, part evangelism.

Kyle Gruter-Curham, a 31-year-old Sterling College graduate, started growing hemp in Irasburg last year after his sister, who suffered from debilitating seizures, found CBD products a savior.

He started by planting 1,000 hemp plants. This year, Gruter-Curham seeded 4,000 and quit his job teaching science at the Laraway School in Johnson to focus full time on his new business, Creek Valley Cannabidiol. He's now producing a CBD-infused ginger kombucha beverage.

Joe Pimentel of Luce Farm in Stockbridge had started planning two years ago to grow marijuana, presuming that state legislators would approve a legalization bill. "After it didn't pass, we asked, What are our options? Hemp came on the radar," he said.

When Pimentel and his wife, Rebecca, planted this year's acre-and-a-half hemp crop, he said they didn't know whether they'd be able to sell the harvest.

"Literally in the last four months, the market has opened up," he said.

That market includes a trial batch of CBD beer in partnership with Long Trail Brewing Company. Pimentel initially approached friends at the Bridgewater Corners brewery about selling Luce Farm CBD honey in its gift shop. Next thing he knew, Long Trail was planning CBD suds.

"It happened in three weeks," Pimentel said. The beer sold out in three hours earlier this month. He hopes there will be more, though he said Luce Farm and Long Trail have made no definitive plans.

Pimentel said he is now much more interested in hemp and CBD than marijuana, even if it is eventually legalized in Vermont.

Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) is a moderate Democrat with a libertarian streak who is not prone to chasing the latest fads. A stonemason by trade, he hadn't farmed in years, but this year he sowed 12 hemp plants on his property in Glover.

"I'm probably the smallest of all the hemp growers," Rodgers said. He'll use his crop to learn more about different strains, how to process the plant and whether he wants to produce CBD goods himself or just sell the hemp harvest to others. Eventually, he wants hemp farming to be his main source of income.

"A lot of things intrigue me about it," he said, including being able to work at home on his own land. The 52-year-old said his aching back, knees and ankles tell him, "At some point I've got to stop lifting stone."

Rodgers is also sold on the therapeutic value of the CBD oil extracted from hemp. "I know people using CBD who've gotten off prescription drugs. I think this stuff has potential," he said.

But the senator noted that hemp is an unusual crop to grow. "It looks exactly like marijuana," he said.

He posted a sign clearly labeling it as hemp. "If somebody stumbles out of the woods and sees the plants, they'll say, OK, I can't get high," Rodgers said.

The state Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets regularly gets inquiries from police agencies about whether a certain crop is permitted as hemp, said Tim Schmalz, the agency's plant industry section chief. When they learn a plot is registered as hemp, police leave it alone, he said.

Joel Pominville of Quarry Road Farm with his modified hemp harvester - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Joel Pominville of Quarry Road Farm with his modified hemp harvester

Beyond the annual permit application, according to Schmalz, hemp farmers face little regulation in Vermont. Starting this fall, the state will offer voluntary hemp testing. For $150 a sample, the tests will reveal the hemp crop's CBD and THC levels, he said.

Because hemp must test below 0.3 percent THC to be legal, farmers face a risk if their crops exceed the limit. "It's no longer hemp," Schmalz said. "We will let them know their hemp sample came in a little high and we will advise local law enforcement."

Chang, who is growing hemp for research purposes in Charlotte, said he wants the state to provide more regulation, so producers can demonstrate that their products meet standards and separate themselves from those who don't. "We need regulation to legitimize the industry," he said.

A growing number of farmers are hoping this will indeed be a legit industry.

Berthiaume, of Quarry Road Farm, said he believes in CBD's therapeutic value. He and Pominville also believe hemp represents one of the most exciting new opportunities to hit Vermont farming in years. That's made delving into hemp fun, they said.

"There's no modern history with hemp. There's no modern equipment with hemp," Berthiaume said.

So Pominville bought a used 1973 cultivator. He sounded like a kid with a new toy as he explained how, with the help of a YouTube video, he rejiggered the height of the tines to accommodate the taller-than-corn, fibrous hemp plants. He and Berthiaume can't wait to hit the hemp field with the machine.

*Correction, September 13, 2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of hemp Dan Chang is growing.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hemp Is Hot"

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