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Sole owner-operator John Nicol said he has help running his small business from his family and friend Ryan, with whom he moved from California where the two spent three years working on cannabis farms in the Redwood forests of Humboldt County.

Yellow Birch Farm in Peacham is one of over 250 hemp growers and processors in Vermont registered with the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) for the 2020 growing season.

The majority of these farms are growing hemp, a type of cannabis plant, to harvest the non-psychoactive compound CBD (Cannabidiol).

Hemp is substantially lower in THC, the psychoactive compound found in the type of cannabis plant that produces marijuana. Since The Controlled Substance Act of 1970, hemp has occupied a spot on a list of federally controlled substances. The 2018 Federal Agricultural Improvement bill removed hemp from this list, allowing the market for CBD products to exhibit rapid growth.

“U.S. CBD sales grew by 92 percent in 2018, 562 percent in 2019, and were forecast to grow by 94 percent in 2020,” according to Virginia Lee, CBD Research Manager for Brightfield Group, a marketing and consumer information firm. “We had published these numbers in December 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak. COVID-19 will impact our market forecasts,” Lee noted. “We are working through that now.”

The Vermont Hemp Rules, instituted under a state pilot program launched in 2014, require hemp growers to register with the AAFM.

“Ninety percent of the registrations issued by the AAFM in 2019 included cultivation for CBD production,” said Stephanie Ann Smith, Cannabis Quality Control and Policy Administrator for the agency.

Under the name of its retail arm, Vermont CBD Flower, Yellow Birch Farm touts quality, smokable CBD flower. It goes for $60 an ounce. Wholesale prices vary, but anything under 10 pounds is $400 per pound.

The hemp cultivated at Yellow Birch Farm is bred by Northern Roots Nursery of Vermont and recognized as better suited for CBD flower than for the extraction of CBD oil, another common product.

The company promotes its dense, trichrome-encrusted buds, “complemented by a terpane profile,” according to a press release, "and exhibiting a balanced floral aroma with hints of sweet berry and citrus pine.”

Fragrance is not the main selling point for CBD products, rather the fact that they are derived from a type of cannabis plant, which gives them a vague association with marijuana, medical-grade and otherwise, and its various properties.

“There is a wide range of healing effects in the CBD hemp plant,” said owner-operator John Nicol. “It is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which can help relax the body. It can also help with anxiety and sleep.”

However, a disclaimer on the business’s website acknowledges, “The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care.” It’s also noted that the disclaimer is required to comply with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act.

In a statement issued on March 20, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn said, “We are concerned that some people wrongly think that the myriad of CBD products on the market have been evaluated by the FDA and determined to be safe, or that using CBD ‘can’t hurt.’”

“We also are not at a point where we can conclude that unapproved CBD products are safe for use," said Hahn. "We encourage Americans to consult with their health care providers before using CBD products.”

Yellow Birch Farm sells products to customers through it's website and provides in-person delivery.

In a statement issued in July 2019, Amy Abernathy, deputy commissioner for the USFDA, said, “It is currently illegal to put into interstate commerce a food to which CBD has been added, or to market CBD as, or in, a dietary supplement.”

“We have chosen to market hand-trimmed, raw hemp flower for the user to do what they please with,” said Nicol. “Our product is smokable hemp flower, but the user can boil it into tea, create their tinctures using grain alcohol, create salves and lotions, or use it in baked goods. All uses provide the healing effects of CBD for the user.”

Originally from northeastern Massachusetts, sole owner-operator Nicol said he has help running his small business from his family and friends including his parents, brother Paul, and friend Ryan, with whom he moved from California, where the two spent three years working on cannabis farms in the Redwood forests of Humboldt County.

Nicol said his experience farming in California inspired him to return to the east coast and start a farming life closer to his family.

“We knew there was a strong agricultural community here in Vermont, so my brother and I set out to find a piece of land in the Green Mountains with sufficient sun, soil, and a stream. We went to California for adventure, but we knew we would see the great American landscape, and learn farming practices that would later help us to understand our heritage as men of the land in America.”

Nicol holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Landscape Architecture, received in 2014 from the University of Massachusetts, and his approach to farming is informed by his experience as a landscape designer.

“I approach farm design with the techniques I was taught in school. Water management, forestry, and general farm layout come naturally to me because of my design background.

A swale and mound system collects rainfall, allowing it to permeate the soil and nourish the roots of our plants, while also preventing topsoil erosion.”

Following his relocation to Vermont from California, Nicol worked at Riverside Farm in Hardwick, learning organic gardening practices, and later at Small Axe farm in Barnet, where he learned sustainable building practices and no-till, organic vegetable farming.

“We are a no-till hemp farm,” Nicol said of his operation. “This means the soil stricture remains intact, allowing beneficial microbes and fungi to thrive. Our swale and mound system is aligned with the existing contours of the land. This means we are catching as much rain as possible and permeating it into the earth, further growing the soil. This system creates minimal run-off of any fertilizer however organic it may be. We only use organic inputs.”

The farm is seeking organic certification for the 2020 growing season and was scheduled for inspection by the Northeastern Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) on May 26.

The Vermont hemp pilot program will be in effect until October 31. The 2018 Farm Bill directed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adopt rules for the regulation of hemp production and testing beyond the pilot program authorization.

“Under USDA’s Interim Final Rule (IFR), which would be in effect after October 31, complying with a total theoretical THC standard of 0.3% delta-9-THC may be difficult with the cultivars of hemp available,” explained Smith.

“Generally, the hemp cultivars available to Vermont farmers that produce high concentrations of CBD also produce THC, which is the regulated compound in hemp. There is a risk in cultivating hemp that the THC produced will exceed the 0.3% total theoretical THC threshold outlined in the IFR.”

Vermont growers will not be affected by the IFR for the 2020 growing season as long as crops are sampled, tested, and harvested by October 31, when the state’s pilot program ends. Going forward the IFR and any other federal regulations will apply to them.

“We should not be affected by the new rules,” said Nicol. “We must use stable genetics that are guaranteed to be under 0.3 THC.”