WESTMINSTER, Vt. — There’s still some uncertainty around the federal and state rules that regulate hemp — but as the market for CBD oil grows, there’s a lot of anticipation around what a good hemp crop could mean for Vermont’s economy.
As the growing season gets underway, more than 450 farmers across Vermont are getting their hemp plants into the ground.
The greenhouses at High Meadows Farm in Westminster, Vt., are filled with tiny seedlings this time of year. Farm owner Howard Prussack has been growing lavender and basil and rosemary for about 20 years, and he delivers his plants to garden centers and co-ops all over New England.
This year, Prussack has a new product: He has about 5,000 hemp plants ready to go, and he said that over the next few weeks he’ll be delivering them to farmers across Vermont.
“I knew the hemp business was attracting people to get into it. … They’re going to have to get their hemp plants from somebody, so maybe it should be us. Why not?” Prusack said. “So, it’s just a beautiful opportunity, at least for this year and hopefully going forward, for small growers.”
Hemp and marijuana are in the same family but hemp has very little THC, the chemical that gets people high when they ingest pot.
What hemp does have is cannabidiol, or CBD, which some health advocates say can be used to aid anxiety and muscle relaxation, and as a sleep aid.
Vermont has been slowly ramping up its industrial hemp growing infrastructure over the past few years and last year the federal government gave its go-ahead for industrial cultivation.
Just two years ago, there were fewer than 100 people growing hemp in the state. This year, about 450 people are registered to grow, working in every county in Vermont. Prussack said the growth will help farmers across the state.
“The potential could be huge, for a lot of farms,” Prussack said. “You know, in a time when dairy farmers are struggling just to stay in business and, you know, farming’s tough in Vermont. This is a once-in-a-generational thing that something comes along that — ‘Wow, here’s something that we can make money.’ And you can get involved and learn while you earn.”
But the excitement around Vermont’s newest cash crop comes as both federal and state regulations are still in flux. Even though the growth has been dramatic, state and federal regulators are still catching up; the final rules have not yet been adopted.
Stephanie Smith, with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the draft rules on hemp cultivation were released earlier this year and the rules are now in the public comment period.
“The agency does want to get the rules in place,” Smith said. “We would love to have them in place before harvest season for the purposes of clarity to all the players in the industry, farmers and processors alike.”
The proposed Vermont rules include a grading system, kind of like maple syrup, and there are benchmarks for purity and safety that Smith said will position Vermont as a major player in the hemp and CBD industry.
Smith said once the state rules are in place, they will have to be accepted at the federal level.
“The agency, by adopting these rules, is setting standards for the industry” Smith said. “And hopefully if everybody plays by these rules then it elevates the industry to producing a high-quality product and that gives traceable to a harvest lot on a particular farm. And so hopefully people will say, ‘Oh, Vermont’s products are produced to the standard,’ and so, the market for those products would be beyond our borders.”
Even though CBD products are flooding the market right now, there’s no requirement for independent third-party testing that would verify the potency of CBD and how much is in the product. That’s where companies like Northeast Processing, in Brattleboro, Vt., come in.
Carl Christianson is co-owner and CEO of Northeast Processing, which opened in the fall in an old commercial bakery. The company has the equipment to extract CBD oil from hemp, and it also has all the high-tech instruments to test the purity, strength and chemical profile of the products.
Christianson said he expects to process more than 400,000 pounds of hemp in the fall, and he said he’ll probably run two shifts when farmers are ready to process their harvest.
Once the federal and state regulations are in place, Christianson said, companies will have to test their products, and he expects his lab to pick up a lot of that business.
“We’re excited about the fact that regulations and the testing requirements will start to solidify the differentiation between quality material and material that’s of lesser quality,” Christianson said. “Because in the absence of these requirements, everyone can say that they have high-quality material but it’s hard to be able to differentiate yourself from another supplier in the marketplace because you can’t point to a common set of data.”
The FDA is expected to open up its comment period on using CBD in food and drinks this summer. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture just scheduled its first public hearings on the state rules for late June in Brandon and Newport, Vt.