BURLINGTON, Vt. — The familiar adage is that George Washington grew hemp (he did), and that American farmers were required by law to grow hemp in the founding colonies (they were). Hemp, valued for rope, clothing and paper in the United States, was the largest cash crop in the nation until its prohibition in 1937. Hemp fields stretched from sea to shining sea, all the way up to St. Johnsbury, which was, for a brief time, a thriving center of hemp production.
Hemp 101: Hemp is not Marijuana
The above distinction is still one of the most significant challenges facing hemp advocates. “Hemp possesses a genetic-level THC-inhibitor that prevents the plant from developing any psychoactive properties,” said Joel Bedard, founder of Vermont Hemp Company. “Otherwise, it grows, looks and smells just like any other cannabis.”
“Hemp possesses a genetic-level THC-inhibitor that prevents the plant from developing any psychoactive properties.”
There are multiple kinds of THC and CBD, but simply put, hemp doesn’t have enough THC — the aforementioned compound that produces the psychoactive reaction that gets you high. Because of this genetic difference between hemp and marijuana, the two actually cannot co-exist. The hemp will out-compete the pot and turn marijuana into hemp-seed producers, instead of smokeable THC-laden buds.
This distinction was further defined in the Federal Farm Bill, which passed in March 2014 and allowed for the cultivation of hemp for research purposes. Significantly, the farm bill also established a statutory definition of “industrial hemp” as the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis.
“While hemp has remained an international commodity crop, recreational cannabis has been ruled by a black market,” said Bedard. “The blending of these two primary philosophies has been responsible for some concerns in numerous states, and I do not expect it to go away anytime soon.” Bedard, a UVM ’90 alumnus with a background in agricultural, environmental and natural resource sciences, describes himself as a decades-long advocate for the end of cannabis prohibition.
Hemp History: From Industrial Innovation to ‘Marihuana’
It was the hemp craze that inspired Vermont inventor Thaddeus Fairbanks to team up with his brother and former Republican Governor Erastus to form the St. Johnsbury Hemp Company (read Vermont’s First Cannabis Craze, by Vermont historian Peter Heller). It was while looking for more accurate and efficient methods of weighing raw hemp plants that the brothers developed the Fairbanks Scales. Although hemp never took off (processing hemp efficiently remains a challenge of scale and technology), the platform scale made Caledonia County a hub of industrial innovation.
Hemp, on the other hand, became an outmoded crop as other agricultural and technological substitutes supplanted its use in shipbuilding, textiles and paper making. Popular cannabis prohibition lore suggests that the demise of hemp in the 1930s was due to a conspiracy theory initiated by William Randolph Hearst and carried out by Harry Anslinger, who became the country’s first drug czar and ruled over the demise of legal cannabis.
The crop regained its rock star status briefly during World War II, when the U.S. government promoted cultivation to quell a fiber shortage due to the war effort. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded the peak of industrial hemp production in America in 1943, with more than 150 million pounds on 146,200 harvested acres. By 1957, the U.S. government had banned hemp entirely over confusion about its relationship to marijuana, and it was lumped in with the rest of the Cannabis genus, where it remained absent from the country’s soil — until now.
Today, the industry in the U.S. is growing, but still largely fragmented, misunderstood, and isolated after 75-plus years of prohibition by the U.S. government. Like its THC-imbued cousins, hemp is still classified as a Schedule I drug, which means hemp production and usage are controlled and regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
It comes as no surprise that U.S. market is largely dependent on imports.
Today a limited number federal licenses and importation permits have been issued in the U.S., including to the University of Vermont. However, there is no large-scale commercial hemp production in the United States, and so it comes as no surprise that U.S. market is largely dependent on imports, both as finished hemp-containing products and as ingredients for use in further processing. This lack of federal legal hemp protection also means that many farmers who rely on federal funds and subsidies (most rely on the US Department of Agriculture in one way or another) are wary of risking their operations to jump into hemp cultivation.
More than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity, which is sold on the world market. In 1998 the U.S. saw a loosening of restrictions that allowed it to import food-grade hemp seed and oil for various uses. The single largest supplier of U.S. imports of raw and processed hemp fiber is China. Canada is the largest source of U.S. hemp seed and oilcake imports. Currently, the U.S. imports 60% of all of the hemp produced worldwide.
In the early 1990s a sustained resurgence of interest in allowing commercial cultivation of industrial hemp began in the United States. Several states have conducted economic or market studies, and have initiated or passed legislation to expand state-level resources and production. Hemp is now legal in 13 U.S. states — including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.
Practical Problems Persist
Due to the ongoing federal restrictions, even the research capabilities of Vermont universities are limited and nerve-wracking, so interested institutions are proceeding slowly. Both UVM and Sterling College hope to be able to plant hemp during the 2016 growing season. “I understand there are faculty at both schools who are actively working to obtain seed and get crops in the ground as soon as they are able,” said Timothy Schmalz of the Department of Agriculture.
Bedard, a UVM ’90 alumnus, works with his alma mater raising cultivars for field trials and other research, including how to use hemp as a way to filter nitrates from farm run-off before it hits the aquifer, a significant challenge in Vermont. “It was important to me to involve the school,” said Bedard, a UVM research affiliate. “Having the opportunity to clean soil and water while introducing hemp into a commodity agricultural rotation in Vermont is fantastic.”
More videos available from HEMP NY CITY on YouTube.
To help provide further stimulation at more local levels, the Vermont legislature and Governor Peter Shumlin passed bold legislation in 2013 authorizing the cultivation and production of hemp in the state of Vermont, “Without waiting for the federal government to relax its regulations prohibiting hemp cultivation under the controlled substances act.”
Under the Vermont law, persons wishing to grow hemp must register with the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The registry is intended for legitimate farmers who want to grow hemp as a fiber, food/forage, and oilseed crop.
In addition to its current illegal status at the federal level, there are a wealth of other issues that hemp-legal states face, including the resistance of outdoor medical marijuana growers out West worried about cross-pollination (some in Oregon are proposing the state create appellation regions to prevent hemp spores from spoiling the marijuana harvest). Hemp building materials are seen as a potential saver of energy and money for new, low-carbon structures, however many contractors are unwilling to incorporate the material into their work.
Kentucky, one of the rare states to allow seed imports, is currently the number one hemp producer in the United States. Propelled by a shift in leadership at its state Agriculture Department, the Bluegrass State has authorized planting of nearly 4,500 acres of hemp for statewide pilot projects in 2016, up from about 900 acres of hemp production last year. With marijuana boosting interest in industrial hemp, Colorado reaped its first hemp harvest in over 60 years in 2013.
So is hemp really growing here in Vermont?
“There are 12 registrants in the hemp registry for the 2016 growing season,” said Schmalz. “I expect more will come in as the weather warms up and interest increases.” In 2015, there were 21 interested parties registered, up from 9 in 2014 and 8 in 2013.
“We have not tracked actual numbers of (acres of) hemp planted, but I have heard through various sources that is has been considerably lower than the acres intended, perhaps on the order of 25 to 30 percent,” said Schmalz. He noted that this is a “best guess” and should not be taken as authoritative.
For hemp advocates, the priority is to continue to spread the gospel of hemp and get more seeds in the ground, not only to dispel myths, but also to create the kind of production scale that allow hemp producers to create economies of scale and process hemp into value-added agricultural products, whether fiber, food, oil or building materials.
Windsor County resident Mia Feroleto, who is also the head of the Vermont chapter of WomenGrow, does not grow hemp herself yet, but she applied her organizing talents to setting up HEMP NY CITY, a February event designed to bring more awareness to the potential of industrial hemp. Before that, a group of hemp farmers and advocates who started the Hemp Road Trip visited Vermont as part of their national tour designed to bring attention to federal reform.
Precise data are not available on the size of the U.S. market for hemp-based products, but current industry estimates report annual sales at more than $580 million annually. Schmalz said that from conversations with growers, “Some growers are interested in growing for fiber, some for seed (both for oil and for food), some want to increase viable seed stocks/certification programs, and some just to see if they can do it with whatever seed they can find that will germinate.” In the past two years, he said, there has been an interest in growing for CBD, adding, “I don’t know how far the CBD thing will go, of course, but it seems to be a pretty hot area right now.”
Despite the risks and challenges, it’s clear that a small but growing contingent of Vermont farmers are dedicated to taking on the challenge of hemp cultivation in the Green Mountain State. Will it bring a revival of the Fairbanks days? That remains to be seen as the nascent industry takes root once again this planting season.
Want to hear more? Check out Vermont Hemp Company founder Joel T Bedard speaking at Heady Times: The Future of Vermont Cannabis at The Skinny Pancake on Tuesday, April 19 2016.