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What Are Those New 'Trees' Being Planted in Fields Across Vermont?

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Charlotte hemp fields - KEN PICARD
  • Ken Picard
  • Charlotte hemp fields

"What's up with all the trees that have suddenly been planted in the town of Charlotte in unused farm fields along Route 7?" asked one Burlington reader in a recent email. "At first I thought it was a bunch of new vineyards. Are they to capture carbon? New Christmas tree farms? WTF?"

Those lush, verdant bushes sprouting in Charlotte — and elsewhere in the state — are neither Christmas trees nor grapevines. The latter is a good guess, because some of those Charlotte fields lay fallow for years, until farmers proposed cultivating hops to serve Vermont's craft beer industry. But that crop never made it into the ground: A group of neighbors objected to the potential spraying of pesticides in a residential neighborhood, as well as to the depletion of their wells that might result from hops' irrigation needs.

In fact, those "trees" sprouting seemingly everywhere are hemp, which is now the fastest-growing crop by acreage in the state. In 2013, 175 acres were registered for hemp cultivation in the state, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. By 2018, the number had grown to 3,290 acres. This year, the agency has registered more than 7,800 acres, with cultivation in all of Vermont's 14 counties.

Stephanie Smith, chief policy enforcement officer at the Agency of Agriculture, noted that not all of that acreage is necessarily in production. Owing to this year's exceptionally wet spring, she explained, some farmers found the areas they had initially registered for cultivation too wet to plant. Nevertheless, the number of commercial hemp farmers in Vermont continues to bloom, from 461 registered growers in 2018 to more than 900 this year.

Several factors drive hemp's popularity. The nonintoxicating cultivar of Cannabis sativa is easy to raise, grows like a weed in virtually any soil or climate, and is naturally resistant to cold, drought and pests. Often referred to as a "miracle plant," hemp is now grown commercially to make a variety of products, including carpets, paper, insulation, salad oils, diapers and bird seed.

But those applications aren't what's fueling Vermont's hemp boom. What is? In a word: cannabidiol, aka CBD. According to Smith, CBD production accounts for 90 percent of Vermont's hemp crop.

Research has shown that CBD has antianxiety, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory and mood-elevating effects in humans, according to Dr. Dustin Sulak, an osteopathic physician and medical director of the Falmouth, Maine, office of Integr8 Health, who often prescribes CBD for his patients. The hemp extract is now added to personal consumer goods such as lip balm, deodorant, mascara, toothpaste, bath bombs, and even anal and vaginal suppositories. In coffeehouses, a single shot of CBD can raise the price of a $2 cup of joe to $5, making hemp potentially far more profitable than hay, corn or pumpkins.

"This crop is ... an opportunity for diversification amongst existing farmers, and we've got a number of new farmers in the state, as well," Smith said. "But I think some of those new farmers dug into the land they registered and discovered there were impediments."

Those impediments go beyond rocky or waterlogged soils, neither of which is ideal for hemp cultivation. For one thing, the U.S. hemp industry remains largely unregulated. As Heather Darby, an agronomist and soil specialist with University of Vermont Extension, explained in a May webinar, "There is no real quality control in the hemp seed market — at all." Hemp seeds can sell for $1 to $2 apiece, and their price could rise as their availability diminishes. Farmers who plant clones started in greenhouses may pay $3 to $8 per plant, Darby added, which adds up to $5,000 to $6,000 per acre.

And, as any experienced farmer knows, there are no guarantees in agriculture. As U.S. farmers prepare for this fall's hemp harvest — the first federally legal one in decades, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill — market projections are "mixed," according to Hemp Benchmarks, an independent price reporting agency for the U.S. hemp industry. The prices for some hemp commodities saw "a sizeable decline" in August, continuing a slide that began in April.

Still, the potential return on investment is high. According to a recent report from Hemp Benchmarks, refined hemp oil sold in August for $2,300 to $11,000 per kilo. Feminized CBD seeds — those that have been modified to produce the more desirable female plants — sold for as much as $28,800 per pound.

It's unclear whether hemp is displacing other crops traditionally grown in Vermont; Smith noted that the state agency doesn't track such figures. Anecdotally, however, she's heard that some fields previously used for grazing livestock have switched to more lucrative hemp production.

Hemp farmers have been subject to losses due to, frankly, stupid thieves who mistake the plants for marijuana. At the second annual Vermont Cannabis and Hemp Convention, held in May, one grower reported that he lost 20 percent of his hemp crop to theft. Hence the proliferation of red-and-white no-trespassing signs that warn would-be plant pilferers that hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, and has "zero effects if smoked."

How does all this hemp production affect Vermont's environment? On the plus side, some studies have found that it sequesters more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than other agricultural or forest products, according to a paper published by James Vosper, president of the Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance.

Still, the bushy annual is not without its environmental impacts. As the crop matures, it can make the surrounding area smell like skunk roadkill — or a Phish show parking lot. Hey, even a "miracle" crop has its downsides.

The original print version of this article was headlined "What Are Those New 'Trees' Being Planted in Fields Across Vermont?"

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