Rolling With The Punches: Hemp Farming Pandemic Style
Farming is a challenging occupation under even the best of circumstances. Given the additional burden of keeping any business afloat during an economically devastating pandemic, we decided to check in with members of Vermont’s still fledgling hemp-growing community to see how this crisis has affected their day-to-day operations and how – or even if – they plan to move forward.
Vermont Farmacy is owned and operated by Erin and Colin Nohl. They plan to have a successful field of hemp (in two different places? Waiting on answer) and when asked about how things were going during the “stay home, stay safe” order, they described it as “what a long strange trip it’s been..”
They found that as the pandemic began to take a hold of daily life in Vermont, many friends and businesses they worked with decided to shift to curbside pick up, online orders, and some even having to close their doors altogether.
The pandemic has created an increase of online CBD sales; some companies have been seeing ranges of 175% increases in online orders and decreases of 45% on the retail front.
The Nohls are fortunate to have a big network of family and friends who pitch in to keep their hemp crop moving. However, the dynamic of working in their fields and greenhouses has shifted dramatically.
“There is nothing more resilient than the hardworking Vermont farmer; able to withstand frigid-winters, recessions, and less than ideal planting/growing conditions.”
“This year we have had to shoulder the field work and greenhouse prep with a much smaller team of two,” they said. And on the rare occasion that someone else has felt comfortable helping, “we enforce distancing guidelines and work on opposite sides of the greenhouse.”
But through all of this, they’re quite clear that “there is nothing more resilient than the hardworking Vermont farmer; able to withstand frigid-winters, recessions, and less than ideal planting/growing conditions.”
During this time, they’ve been able to focus more time on their website, blog and YouTube pages. They’ve also recently partnered with Liquid Blue to create a line of CBD products that has been in the works for months now.
Fortunately, Vermont Farmacy’s distributor, which services primarily co-ops and health food stores, is still ordering products. This has been a big safety net for many hemp farmers in the area.
VT Pure CBD
Last year, Vermont Pure CBD had a successful grow of over 8,000 pounds of high quality material, much more than what had been grown in previous years. They learned a lot about making their operations more sustainable, and are switching over from plastic to a cover crop to address the issue of organic weed suppression. Right now, their fields are plowed, ready to go and are waiting to be inspected for their yearly Certified Organic stamp of approval. Because of COVID-19, inspections have been put on hold, as NOFA hopes to update farmers in the coming weeks.
“The pandemic has been a challenge from the beginning,” says Seth Lapidow, one of the owners of Vermont Pure CBD. Before Governor Scott issued the “stay home, stay safe” order, they struggled with how to deal with the pandemic, closing their retail store location early and furloughing the women who staffed the store.
“I’ve been a lawyer for almost 40 years and it was a challenge for me to figure it out.”
Some of their employees have children, and have had to work from home due to schools closing. Lapidow kept them on payroll until the Governor’s official order was put in place. Because the benefits of being unemployed were more beneficial for their workers, only Lapidow and one other employee have remained on the payroll.
Another big challenge was accessing government money that was available to small businesses. From the start, it was unclear whether or not they were eligible, and trying to get questions answered was impossible.
When the CARES act passed, a portal became available for grants online. However, Lapidow says that there was no way to check in on the status of your application. Then mysteriously, they received money in their bank account with no confirmation or email.
Along with this, accessing financial support from the Payroll Protection Act also proved to be a difficult process. Their bank wasn’t an SBA lender and by the time the paperwork was finished, the money was gone.
Thankfully, they found a bank that was able to help and they now have some cash to pay their employees over the next few months. “I’ve been a lawyer for almost 40 years and it was a challenge for me to figure it out.” said Lapidow.
“Our business has always been half retail, half wholesale,” adds Lapidow. “All of the businesses we sell to besides places like Agway, co-ops and grocery stores are closed.” This has prevented them from receiving new wholesale orders and getting paid for outstanding invoices.
During this time, they’ve been able to focus on what’s to come for their business and upcoming hemp crop. This year, they’re planting CBG, which they’ve never done before. “People are talking about it like the next big thing. We’ll see what happens.”
Overall, they’ve “stuck to their knitting” and continue making the products which are already successful with their customers, while still formulating new products, like their new line of lotions and honey products. “Nature makes it,” says Lapidow, “and we add to it.”
Thankfully, promotional sales online helped business and things have ended up better than they have feared. “Wholesale seems to be coming back. We’re starting to see more activity from retail outlets. Hopefully,” adds Lapidow, “we’ll continue and get through this.”
Border Brook Farm
Border Brook Farm, owned and operated by former U.S Army Paratrooper Greg Zeik and his wife Kate, are changing things up at their farm this year, downsizing their crop to 1,000 plants so they can focus more on each one individually.
“We don’t see the need to be growing 30 plus acres of hemp,” says Greg Zeik. “There is no way you can take care of it the way it needs to be without an army of workers.”
They’ve moved their crop to an organic dairy farm across the street and know that the soil has been kept in good order for the past couple of decades. They’ve also included hundreds of strawberry and blueberry buses as well as apple, pear and plum trees to their farm.
“We are rolling with the punches like everyone else and trying to stay in the fight. I think this is a time to come together and help each other and keep this industry alive.”
Overall, they continue to farm using an integrated method with a permaculture style to it. “Our meat chickens this year will prepare next year’s veggie fields, and all of our duck compost is used for fruit trees and bed prepping for hemp and veggies,” says Greg Zeik. “We are still trying to get it all working together, one day hopefully.”
The pandemic has definitely put a halt on some aspects of their operation, but they are remaining positive and optimistic for the future of our world. They are incredibly excited for farmers markets to get up and running again so they can show others how their products can help them.
“I guess it is what it is,” says Greg Zeik. “We are rolling with the punches like everyone else and trying to stay in the fight. I think this is a time to come together and help each other and keep this industry alive.”