BERLIN — Sunny Border Nurseries Inc. on Kensington Avenue is about three weeks from harvesting its first hemp crop.
As one of the first growers granted a license under the state’s hemp pilot program in June, Sunny Border wasted no time planting cannabis seeds on day one.
After a summer in the farm’s 11 greenhouses, 15,000 hemp plants now range from three inches to almost four feet. Sunny Border is also one of two operations licensed to process cannabidiol or CBD from the plants and has applied for a manufacturer’s license to make and distribute products.
“Being that it’s in its infancy stage. there are a lot of people praying on the innocence of farmers,” said co-owner Randy Persaud. “That’s why they call it a pilot program. Instead of shipping from California, Washington, Oregon, we can produce it here to fulfill the demand here. We want to take it from seed to CBD. We’re trying to create the ‘farm to table CBD.’”
Hemp is considered a booming industry in the state because the plant, a type of cannabis, produces a non-psychoactive substance known as CBD oil, which is used to treat inflammation, pain and anxiety. Entrepreneurs have incorporated it into lotions, pills, tinctures and candies, and in pet products. But because it doesn’t have federal Food and Drug Administration approval, manufacturers and distributors can’t make health claims.
Hemp refers to varieties of the cannabis plant that have less than 0.3 percent THC and no psychotropic effects. It is federally defined as the plant cannabis sativa L. The 2018 federal 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp from the Federal Controlled Substances Act and recognized hemp as an agricultural crop by the federal government.
The Connecticut Farm Bureau Association estimated last spring that an acre of hemp could generate 500 to 1,500 pounds of dried flowers and pull in profits of $37,500 to $150,000, according to The Connecticut Mirror.
The state licensed 82 hemp growers, two processors, and 21 manufacturers in the pilot program, allowing for the cultivation, harvesting, processing, and manufacturing of hemp plants and byproducts. In total, there are currently 294 acres of land being used to grow hemp in Connecticut, according to information from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office.
Growers were granted conditional licenses because the national background check could not be completed in time for the growing season. Anyone who grows or cultivates hemp must be licensed by the state Department of Agriculture.
State officials and farmers say hemp could help struggling plant and dairy farms diversify their product lines. Several licenses were granted in Berlin, one grower is licensed in Cheshire, and another in Meriden.
When Marc Laviana, the former owner of Sunny Border Nurseries in Berlin died two years ago, his son Dan Laviana was at a loss to sustain the 90-year old farm that had been in the family for 50 years.
”The industry needed a breath of fresh air or a shot of adrenaline, some new revenue streams to get it running again,” said Persaud.
Persaud is a real estate redeveloper from New York, whose family is connected with Laviana. He evaluated the business and saw potential.
“Operating for the last 30 years here it’s been kind of sustained,” Persaud said. “For an industry that had 90 year branding, and a global name, it was kind of archaic.”
Persaud arrived on the farm Aug. 8, 2018 and wanted to upgrade the technology and integrate data analytics. He bonded with Dan Laviana and didn’t want to see him have to sell the farm.
“Coming in and looking at it with a fresh set of eyes you’re looking at the revenue model and revenue stream,” Persaud said. “Dan wanted to just pick up on his dad’s legacy. It was his career for his entire life.”
Persaud was interested in recreational marijuana growing, but when the state General Assembly failed to pass legislation this spring, hemp production provided an alternative.
Hemp had promise with its multiple uses — as a fiber product for hay or bedding and rope and the burgeoning CBD industry, which comes from seeds, flowers and leaves.
To obtain a license in the pilot program, the state demands a research and marketing plan.
It also has rules, lots of them.
Those involved with growing hemp are subject to criminal background checks. The seeds must be certified by the state and federal government. Plots and buildings where hemp is grown or stored must be have GPS identification. Owners are responsible for preharvest sampling and testing. They must also meet requirements for THC testing reports, harvest reports and destruction reports. The state Department of Agriculture conducts random inspections and sampling for THC content.
Persaud knew it would be a challenge to get approvals. Should recreational marijuana be legalized, Sunny Border is ready.
Plans are to separate the farm’s annual and perennial business from its “boutique CBD” business. Persaud and Laviana are in touch with growers from Colorado and California, UConn’s agricultural department, the state Department of Agriculture and the Department of Consumer Protection on the processing and manufacturing side of the business.
Future plans are to go completely green with 100 percent renewable energy, certify their product as organic, and build permanent structures. The 36-acre farm employs 33 workers and plans to hire more.
Farms help farms
Farms with longtime reputations like Sunny Border are connecting with other local farmers in need of growing assistance and to help them develop their own distribution pipelines.
“One of the things about farmers, Everyone likes to help each other out,” Laviana said.
Jonathan Birdseye is starting his own hemp farming operation at Fontanella Farms Inc. on Chamberlain Highway. With some help from outside investors, Birdseye is planting 20 acres of hemp in the spring. He received a hemp growing license this past spring and is applying for a processing license.
“The farm was sitting mostly idle,” Birdseye said. “With the property just sitting there we were looking to make it profitable.”