Some Vermont farmers are eager to grow hemp—once they’re allowed
Hemp seed in Saskatchewan, Canada
Hanging in the House Agriculture Committee’s hearing room in the Vermont Statehouse, and put there by who knows who, it’s a poster that to some would be more appropriate in a college dorm room 30 years ago. In reality, it’s from 1942 and was produced by the United States Department of Agriculture to promote a film encouraging U.S. farmers to grow hemp to support the war effort.
But it’s a poster that has relevance today, as Vermont farmers who believe in the economic and agricultural benefits of growing hemp seek a victory in their longstanding push to grow industrial hemp.
In 2008, advocates led by Rural Vermont and the national organization Vote Hemp celebrated the tri-partisan passage of Vermont’s Industrial Hemp Bill, Act 212. The bill calls for a regulatory framework for growing industrial hemp in Vermont. However, it can only take effect once the federal government—either Congress or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration—takes an active step in the permitting of hemp. In the meantime, the hemp export industry is thriving in Canada and China, primarily supplying the U.S. demand for hemp products.
Why the prohibition in America? Hemp’s cousin is the marijuana plant. The two plants look similar; however the hemp plant contains minimal traces of the psychoactive drug associated with the marijuana plant, tetrahydracannabinol (THC). The hemp plant contains .3 percent THC concentration as compared to marijuana, which contains anywhere from 2 percent THC to the modern levels of 20 percent THC. If a person were to smoke hemp they would most likely achieve a bad headache rather than obtain any intoxicating effects.
There are many theories as to why the hemp plant became illegal to grow in the U.S., including allegations that it was competing with the Hearst family’s newspaper interests, as hemp can be turned into paper very efficiently compared to wood. But today, the biggest resistance to hemp comes from the law enforcement community, concerned by its association with marijuana.
So it is still illegal for Vermont farmers to grow hemp, but that is not stopping some from planning on it.
•••Will Allen, of Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, wants to grow hemp because “it’s a miraculous crop that can provide wood, cordage, high-protein seeds, fabric, medicines, large amounts of organic matter, bio plastics, animal feed….” In an interview with WCAX-TV last August, Will commented on its prohibition: “Yeah, it’s related to marijuana, but poppies are related to opium poppies—it’s the same issue. We don’t stop growing poppies because they are related to opium poppies. We grow poppies because they are beautiful, and we should grow hemp because it’s useful.” Should the federal government pave the way for Vermont’s law to take effect, Will plans on becoming one of the first Vermont farmers to grow hemp.
John Vitko, who runs a small-scale diversified farm in Warren, says hemp “is proven by our forefathers to be a very productive and manageable plant for a small farm, and denying farms this tool is a crime.” His farm provides eggs for his local ice cream business, and his “main reason to grow hemp is to supply a feed for my chickens that is high in omega 3-6, a complete protein, and loaded with amino acids; this feed will make my chickens healthier and in turn make healthier eggs and healthier humans.” Furthermore, John points out that “a farm could improve hard clay soil [common in Vermont] with its tap root, and it could be grown in areas where other crops have difficulty, feed and bed the livestock, fuel the tractor, warm the farmhouse, and clothe the farmer.” He acknowledges that hemp is not the “holy grail” but is quite versatile and “should be in every farmer’s fields.”
Aspiring farmer Ben Brown of South Burlington envisions growing hemp on land he is looking to purchase. “I intend to use hemp on my [future] homestead to feed animals, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen in the soil, and hopefully sell the residual byproducts of my uses to other local industries such as textiles, building materials, etc.” To Ben, the possibilities are virtually endless. Communities such as Rutland and Barre could become hemp “factory-production” towns, he says, and Vermont could create “sustainable economies with existing infrastructure that is not currently being utilized to create lasting, meaningful local jobs.”
Full Sun, a new Vermont startup in the midst of building a commercial oilseed processing facility in Addison County, is also hoping to one day source local hemp. At first, “our business model is to purchase non-GMO and organic specialty oil crops [such as canola, sunflower, and soybean] from Vermont farmers and others in the region, and market the oil and meal for food and feed ingredients,” says Netaka White, cofounder of Full Sun along with his business partner, David McManus. “We can’t wait to set contracts with our farmer/partners to grow hemp seed.Farm gate prices are around $1.00 per pound now, with 800 to 1,200 pounds of seed per acre, so it’s a solid cash crop for the grower, and the hemp oil, the meal, and the hulled seed are all going to be important products for Full Sun. But unfortunately, until the federal government reclassifies hemp, we’re forced to buy from Canadian growers.”
Hempfully Green of Poultney is planning on developing “sustainable, clean, carbon-reducing, fuel-reducing, fire-proof, mold-proof housing made from locally grown hemp.” Forming hemp into a concrete-like substance called “hempcrete” is highly efficient and is currently being used in Quebec. Tom Simon, a partner in the business, is working on a business proposal to sell the equipment, know-how, and building needed to grow and harvest—on 45 acres—all the seed stock to fulfill all the energy needs of a farm, from electric to auto/tractor fuel to home fuel. Emily Peyton, the other partner in the business, insists that “the prohibition be lifted on grounds of fair trade relations with foreign countries, who enjoy the one-way market of exporting hemp to the U.S. while we are prevented from competing.” However, she adds, “It will have to be the states who stand up to the feds, as we all see the fed forces are not anywhere near a place of doing loving things for the earth, or for the people.”
•••Where does hemp stand, legislatively? Last year, Vermont Senator Vince Illuzi attached an amendment to a relatively minor bill that would have given the Vermont Agency of Agriculture the power to issue hemp permits and symbolically challenge current federal policy. Instead, a compromise was struck that authorized the agency to create rules for the permitting process and hold a public comment period (but the agency cannot issue a permit until the DEA or Congress acts on federal policy). Once this state-permitting process is developed by the agency, Vermont farmers would be a step closer to being able to plant hemp; they’d be “shovel ready” should the federal government act, and would not have to be delayed while Vermont engaged in a rule-making process.
On the national level, Vermont is not in a bubble. Vote Hemp, a national hemp advocacy organization, notes that “to date, thirty-one states have introduced pro-hemp legislation and nineteen have passed pro-hemp legislation.” Rural Vermont and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund have collaborated on a public education campaign to drive the Vermont Congressional delegation to action, which they have taken. Vermont Rep. Peter Welch was a co-sponsor of Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2010, which gives authority to the states to regulate hemp as they see fit. And this past summer, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders joined Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley in co-sponsoring Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2012, which would do the same as the House bill. Neither bill has come up for a vote yet.
Topping off the state actions and federal legislation, this past November, voters in Colorado and Washington approved public referendums to legalize marijuana. Those same measures also legalized hemp; however, the states’ laws are now in conflict with federal law, so if a farmer in one those states were to grow hemp, they could still risk land forfeiture.
In late January of this year, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, sent a letter to DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart declaring that the “Senate Judiciary Committee has an interest in the DEA’s regulation of industrial hemp and its effect on the ability of hemp producers to operate in states like Vermont.” The Senator’s letter questions why there has been no progress in the agency’s evaluation of hemp. “Has the DEA reconsidered any aspect of its regulation of hemp in light of these developments?” Sen. Leahy wrote, using his power as the Judiciary Committee chair to address these concerns. But he was not alone, and not simply acting within his own party. A week after Sen. Leahy’s letter was sent to the DEA, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, senator from Kentucky, issued a statement declaring his support of the industrial hemp movement, to allow hemp farming in his home state.
In the near future, Vermont farmers such as Will, John, and Ben may be allowed to grow hemp, and businesses such as Full Sun and Hempfully Green may be able to source hemp locally and create an added economic opportunity for farmers and entrepreneurs. When might this happen? It’s hard to be sure, for watching the political process unfold is like watching grass grow. However, given our country’s divisive political climate, hemp could become a unifying force for nonpartisan politics. As the USDA stated in 1942, hemp could mean victory.
Robb Kidd is an activist based in Montpelier and the organizer for Rural Vermont, a statewide farmers’ advocacy organization.
Photos by Luke Zigovits, courtesy of Vote Hemp