ALBURGH, Vt. — The University of Vermont Agriculture Extension cultivates and researches over 3,000 plots of crops at their Borderview Farm location in Alburgh, but on only two-and-a-half acres are they truly breaking ground.
UVM is the first university in the northeast to grow hemp legally at the federal level for research purposes, with the first crop planted and harvested this year. Spearheading the project is UVM Agronomist Heather Darby.
“As an agricultural researcher I’ve been interested in hemp for a long time. It has many beneficial end uses,” Darby said. “But I’ve never had the opportunity to grow and research hemp because it was illegal.”
That all changed when the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law, with Section 7606 of the bill allowing institutions of higher education and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp for research and pilot program purposes.
Despite this newfound freedom, Darby and her team faced many challenges getting the crop in the ground — which is why it took nearly two years from when the bill was passed to get the project underway.
“Even though the farm bill passed we still had to deal with the Department of Drug Enforcement Agency,” she said.
Approval from the DEA needed to be sought prior to planting. The right permits needed to be obtained and seed had to be imported from other countries. On top of all this, funds needed to be raised.
The USDA approved the growing of hemp for research and pilot programs for the same reason Darby wanted to participate — to see if hemp could be a viable cash crop for farmers in the United States. Despite this, the government is not funding any of the ventures.
Luckily through crowd funding last year, and donations from companies and organizations like Dr. Bronners and the United Natural Food Foundation, the agriculture extension was able to raise enough money for the endeavor.
“Part of my goal is to develop and evaluate opportunities for farmers in Vermont,” Darby said. “Agriculture is an extremely important component to the Vermont economy and the state in general. Farmers need viable options to stay in business. Hemp could be one.”
“Part of my goal is to develop and evaluate opportunities for farmers in Vermont … Farmers need viable options to stay in business. Hemp could be one.”
Hemp production on the individual and commercial level is not unheard of for farmers in Vermont. Since Governor Peter Shumlin passed legislation authorizing the cultivation and production of hemp in 2013, some farmers have begun growing hemp legally on the state level.
According to Tim Schmalz, who runs the plant industry section at the Vermont Agriculture Agency, approximately 174 acres of hemp by 28 growers was reported to the agency at the beginning of the 2016 growing season.
The actual number of acreage and growers that were successful is unknown, as the agency only tracks those planning to grow the crop.
Schmalz said that since the law passed in 2013 there has been slight increases in those registered as hemp growers — there were approximately 21 registrants in 2015, and 28 this year.
However, the widespread cultivation of hemp for commercial purposes in Vermont could still be years away. It may be legal on all levels for researchers to grow it, but it’s still federally illegal for farmers. Before the floodgates could even begin to open the bureaucracy surrounding the plant would need to change, most importantly the rules surrounding seed.
A stipulation of the Farm Bill is that researchers must destroy the seed each year. This means that the seeds cannot be saved for next years crop, sold nor given to other farmers. In order to obtain seed researches must contract it from out of the country, with permits needed from the DEA by both the seed sellers and procurers.
“There’s still a lot of barriers and risk some farmers aren’t willing to take,” Darby said. “If you can’t access seed, and need DEA permits that aren’t available to individuals, it can’t happen.”
Luckily for Darby, the seeds harvested this year will be “destroyed” naturally through her ongoing, in-lab research process. The next step in the venture is evaluating the seed and its uses post-harvest.
While the crop at Borderview Farm may grow, look and smell like marijuana, it in fact only contains point three percent or less of THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis, which is the legal limit both in the state of Vermont and federally for the plants to be considered hemp and not marijuana.
Despite this there’s still a stigma attached to growing hemp, which Darby is hoping to break.
The University did proceed cautiously when Darby presented the idea in 2014. With the general public not always understanding the difference between hemp and marijuana and with strict drug rules on campus, it was important that all the paperwork was done correctly and all the rules followed.
“Part of our mission is to take away the stigma. It’s really great to have the university adding some validity to the crop.”
“Part of our mission is to take away the stigma,” she said. “It’s really great to have the university adding some validity to the crop.”
UVM’s involvement growing hemp has already begun to change the conversation between growers and law enforcement. Local police forces have been more interested in protecting the crop from thieves and vandals than confiscating it, Darby said.
This year UVM’s focus was to study the agronomics of the crop. Darby looked at how plants performed with different seeding dates and seeding rates (the number of seeds to plant for optimal harvest). She also looked at how to control weeds within in the crop.
Another focal point was the harvest, which focused primarily on seed. This winter she’ll be looking at end uses for the seed—from grain production to oil extraction, and planning the next growing season.
Since UVM’s permits expired they must begin the process again, which can take six to nine months. The extension also needs to raise money for the next growing season.
If all goes according to plan Darby hopes to harvest the stems and flowers, along with the seeds of next years crop, in order to begin studying the utility of the entire plant.
“Our next step will hopefully be guided by the industry,” she said. “What are the farmer’s goals and needs, and what can we do to help.”