First, let’s make clear the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana. They are derived from the same genus of plant, Cannabis. Just as Phaseolus vulgaris (common bean) has been bred to produce the wide variety of beans we enjoy for different uses, Cannabis has been bred for divergent uses.
On the industrial side, plant breeders have been after tough fiber and oil from seed. On the recreation and medicinal side, the production of THC, the hallucinogenic compound in marijuana, has been the objective. Industrial hemp contains THC but in very small concentration, not sufficient to produce any sort of “high.” Whether these divergent Cannabis plants should be classified as separate species, or sub-species is in dispute. Cannabis sativa is commonly recognized as the species used for industrial hemp.
Will industrial hemp be the salvation of Vermont agriculture?
It’s a crop with a long history. China began growing hemp for fiber nearly 5,000 years ago. The term “canvas” is derived from the Arabic word for hemp. It was a staple crop in Europe for centuries. Flax provided fiber for delicate uses, but hemp was the workhorse when tough fiber was needed. Early Britain was in constant need of rope and canvas for their ships and at one point required the American colonies to produce hemp for the motherland. But the burgeoning economies of the colonies had their own voracious need for the tough and versatile fiber and hemp oil for lamps. Several of the founding fathers grew it and Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.”
Hemp grew well in Vermont, and indeed through much of the early 19th century United States. The difficult part of the enterprise had always been to separate the stalk into useable fiber. American History Illustrated ran an article in June 1976, in which Ernest Abel described the procedure:
“Come harvest time the plants had to be pulled up by the roots and subjected to a long, laborious process before the fiber could be removed from the stalk. First, the hemp had to be laid out in the sun to dry, next it had to be rotted in water, and then it had to be dried again. After this second drying, the stalks had to be pounded by hand to free the fibers, which were cut from the stalk and drawn through a hackle. Next, they were placed on a reel and fashioned into long threads that were bleached and dried once more before they were ready for the loom.”
After decades of inventive effort, a workable hemp dressing machine emerged in the early 19th century. In 1829, Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks responded to a surge of interest in hemp, becoming involved in the Passumpsick (not a typo) Company, sometimes known as the St. Johnsbury Hemp Company. Hemp dressing machines were in operation in Hardwick by the Lamoille Hemp Company, shortly followed by the Barton Hemp Company. In 1830, Thaddeus patented an improved dressing machine; the Fairbanks Mill manufactured them and the Passumpsick Company set up shop. Other partners sold seed and Erastus put out a pamphlet on hemp cultivation. It is not know how many farmers responded by growing the crop, but there must have been quite a few acres to keep the hemp facilities in operation. Indeed, it was the need to weigh wagonloads of hemp at the St Johnsbury Hemp Company that inspired the invention of the platform scale. The Vermont hemp boom was short-lived and by 1835 the other partners sold the hemp works to Thaddeus and Erastus and the building was apparently absorbed into the Fairbanks Mill.
Hemp’s popularity as a fiber began to fade with the introduction of cheaper Manila hemp from the Far East, the growing use of cotton cloth, and alternatives for papermaking.
In the early 20th century, the use of cannabis as a narcotic was becoming widespread. Several states began to ban the growing and sale of cannabis, including industrial hemp. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was updated in 1938, classifying marijuana as a narcotic and limiting its sale to pharmacies. In 1925, the International Opium Convention banned the exportation of “Indian hemp” (hashish) except for medical and scientific purposes but did not ban the use of hemp fiber.
In 1942, World War II brought a brief resurgence of demand for industrial hemp in the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture produced a film called “Hemp for Victory,” urging farmers to plant hemp for the war effort after the source of Manila hemp had fallen into enemy hands. It’s a fun 10-minute film on YouTube. A series of conventions and acts through the 20th century further restricted cannabis. The rampant use of marijuana and “harder” psychedelic substances in the 1960s counter-culture led to the War on Drugs and cemented the notion that cannabis is an evil plant.
The current wave of marijuana legalization heralds a major change in attitude toward cannabis. In 2014, Congress allowed universities to begin research in growing industrial hemp, and the University of Vermont (UVM) was quick to jump in. UVM agronomist Heather Darby has been growing trials in Alburgh every year since, looking into growing methods appropriate to both fiber and oil production, and testing machines for planting, harvesting, and processing. The cropping methods are a hybrid of those used to grow grain and corn. For fiber, a grain drill is used to plant hemp for a pretty dense stand. For oil, a wider plant spacing is better (one of the UVM trials is spacing) so a corn planter might be more appropriate. Fertility needs are apparently less than corn, but the soil needs to be productive.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial cannabis growers have been ramping up. After the Hemp Fest 2017 at Burke Mountain, Sylvia Dodge described the current state of the reborn hemp industry in her feature in the North Star Monthly. The Northeast Kingdom was chosen as the site for the Hemp Fest because of the high level of interest here. After all, hemp is a crop scraping the edge of legality, and what could be more attractive to entrepreneurs in the region that spawned so many rum-runners in the old days? The advocacy group Heady Vermont recently interviewed Dan and Nick McLure of Century 21 Realty, who report a surge of interest in Northeast Kingdom farmland suitable for hemp production. Both farmers and investors have been sniffing around, sensing an opportunity.
The hemp-growing world is changing fast, both in terms of regulation and markets. The 2018 Farm Bill, signed in January, defines hemp as an agricultural commodity and removes it from the list of controlled substances. Cannabidiol, also known as CBD or CBD oil, is a valuable part of the hemp market and is used in food and wellness products. Designation as an agricultural commodity is a big step, but the bill also turned regulation of CBD over to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA does not recognize CBD as an approved food additive and has not given it status as “generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” Therefore, nearly all the uses of CBD oil that have been exploding in the marketplace are illegal under FDA rules.
In February, both Maine and New York issued new state guidelines to conform to the FDA rules, ending the sale of any food or health products containing CBD. They have since backed off slightly after loud protests from producers and retailers. It appears those states will let the individuals decide whether or not to break the FDA rules. Vermont grows considerably more hemp than either Maine or New York, and the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VDAFM) has written to the FDA seeking to find a path to legalization of health and wellness products containing CDB oils. One can imagine the opposite pressure from big pharmaceutical companies wanting to keep this potential competitor off the shelves.
Is CDB oil actually a legitimate health and wellness ingredient that will stand the test of time? The market has been booming, based on mostly anecdotal evidence. The Mayo Clinic reports that research is limited and ongoing. Various less formal studies report a modest beneficial effect for a variety of illnesses. CDB has been around a long time and there is a group of dedicated people who believe in and promote the products. It seems likely that if the FDA loosens its restrictions, CDB products will become common in health, drug, and food stores. If rigorous scientific studies prove health benefits, the market could be enormous.
If those restrictions are lifted and research is favorable, Vermont farmers will have a real chance to grow a profitable crop on a significant number of acres. However, competition will be stiff. The Chinese don’t have our regulatory climate and are growing their hemp acreage steadily. In this country, some crop farmers in more highly productive states could choose to grow hemp instead of corn or soybeans and likely out-grow us. And the group of farmers that is really hungry for a new crop is tobacco farmers. The regulatory changes allowing hemp research came about because U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has a powerful group of Kentucky tobacco farmers nipping at his heels.
If you’re dreaming of growing hemp, go to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture website and drill down to the hemp program where you’ll find lots of info and links. All growers must register and be regulated. The three-day Vermont Cannabis and Hemp Convention will be happening in May in Essex Junction.
I hope hemp will become a viable cropping option for Vermont farmers. It is frustrating to think that the future of this crop depends on questionable regulation driven by politics rather than science. But like it or not, that is how our country functions these days.
Tim McKay is a retired natural resource conservationist and current woodworker and tree farmer in Peacham.