Peter Nicolas | BDN
Peter Nicolas | BDN
The best future for Maine hemp growers will likely involve niche markets and specialty value added products.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff •
March 7, 2020 1:00 am
Maine has already carved out a niche in the craft beer industry with unique flavors and brands thanks in part to the use of locally grown hops and barley. Experts say there is no reason the same can’t be done with the steadily growing hemp production in the state. And that will be important if Maine growers want to compete with the larger and more established farms in the western states.
Dr. John Jemison, professor of soil and water quality with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, spent six months last year in Colorado on a sabbatical observing the growing, harvesting, drying and marketing of hemp. Or, as he calls it, his “Cannabactal.”
What Jamison came away with was a respect for the large industrial farms in that western state and the knowledge that if Maine wants to compete in that hemp market, it needs to blaze its own path.
It’s a message the roomful of hemp growers at the Growing Hemp in Maine Conference at Jeff’s Catering Friday were ready to hear. Put on by UMaine Cooperative Extension, the conference drew experienced growers and those just entering the field, all ready to reap their own profits. Jemison sees no reason they can’t as long as they know what they are up against.
In 2018, according to the Colorado Sun, the state had 80,000 acres of cropland in hemp. In comparison, Maine farmers devoted 500 acres of cropland to growing hemp that same year.
Unlike the smaller hemp farms in Maine, the Colorado operations cover hundreds of acres with most devoted to growing hemp for biomass, used for everything from a heat source to the production of CBD. On a single farm, Jemison said, more than 250,000 pounds of hemp biomass was harvested in a single season — more than produced by all the Maine hemp farms combined.
The demand for hemp biomass is the result of increasing consumer demand for cannabidiol — or CBD, the active primary compound in hemp and marijuana. Consumers spent $5 billion in 2019 on CBD products purported to treat everything from skin issues to depression through products like lotions, bath beads, tinctures and teas.
In Colorado, that pushed some hemp growers’ profits to $60,000 an acre.
“Everything they are growing in Colorado is being used for CBD,” Jemison said. “Maine growers must think about the competition out there.”
With the profit potential of CBD products, it’s easy to understand Maine growers wanting to get in on the market. But growing hemp is not cheap, Jemison said. It can cost roughly $15,000 to $18,000 an acre just to purchase the seeds. Then are the costs associated with labor, cultivation and harvesting. In order to make a profit, farmers need to have a solid plan for where they are going to sell their hemp, especially if they want to break into the CBD market.
Hemp contains terpenes, an organic compound found in other plants that gives a plant its distinctive scent or flavor. It’s the terpenes in hops that give craft beer citrusy or fruit-like flavors.
According to Dr. Heather Darby, an agronomist at the University of Vermont Extension, anyone growing hemp for CBD products needs to pay attention to those terpenes.
“They are widely different among [hemp] varieties,” Darby said. “If you are looking at producing a smokable product or an edible product, you need to know what the terpenes in what you are growing produce.
As growers learn more about terpenes and fine-tune what they are growing for specific flavors or aromas, Darby predicts the industry will eventually look very much like the current craft beer industry with different strains producing very distinct and marketable qualities.
Maine growers have to develop those unique characteristics with their hemp through sharing growing information and trial and error in their fields, Jemison said, if they want to make inroads on the rapidly saturating CBD market.
Even how the hemp is grown can fill a niche in the market, according to Jemison.
Currently, there are no commercial pesticide or herbicide products on the market that have been approved for use in growing hemp. This leaves growers using natural pest controls like aphid-eating ladybugs or essential oils like rosemary.
“You are already looking at something you have to grow organically,” Jemison said. “Why not be ‘uber’ organic with it since there are no chemical ways to treat it.”
Growers have to get creative with their crops, Jemison said.
“Think of a novel, value-added product,” he said. “Why not a CBD body butter? Just have fun with it.”