Seven Days

Farmers Need Seeds to Cultivate New Hemp Crop

Kathryn Flagg Apr 9, 2014 10:00 AM
Jeb Wallace-brodeur
Johnny Vitko

Last year, activists pushing for the legal cultivation of hemp scored a big victory in Vermont: In June, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill that legalizes the cultivation of cannabis sativa, a relative of marijuana that proponents say could be a lucrative value-added crop for Vermont farmers.

The only trouble? State law doesn't match up with federal regulations, which still classify hemp as an illegal, controlled substance — despite the fact that industrial hemp lacks tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in the concentrations necessary to produce a high. The disconnect between state and federal rules isn't scaring off many farmers, who say the feds have bigger fish to fry, but it is making it difficult to legally obtain seeds for cultivation.

Farmers' options are limited: Some are considering smuggling seeds in from Canada, where hemp has been cultivated legally since 1998. Others are looking to online retailers to import seeds. A few have said they plan to harvest and store seeds from feral hemp plants in Vermont.

"Right now, getting seeds is nearly impossible," said Heidi Mahoney, a garlic farmer and homesteader in Panton who once owned Fat Hen Market in Vergennes.

"[Smuggling is] not my forte," joked Mahoney's husband, sculptor Eben Markowski. But if seeds "magically" appeared on their doorstep, he said, "There's no question. We would absolutely plant it."

Why? Hemp, one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, can be used for food, fuel and fiber. The farm advocacy group Rural Vermont and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund estimate the crop could bring in between $2,000 and $3,000 an acre for farmers. Last year's net returns in Canada were lower — $433 and $522 for conventional and organic hemp, respectively — but still brought in more than corn ($273 per acre) and soybeans ($332). It's a good crop to use in rotation with corn, which dairy farmers grow extensively for feed, and it can help kill weeds in fields without the use of herbicides.

But hemp is still sometimes mistaken for its psychotropic relative, marijuana. That misconception is less common in Vermont, says Rural Vermont organizer Robb Kidd, but he still gets the occasional "Oh, you want to smoke it!" comment. In fact, industrial hemp contains only between 0.3 and 1.5 percent THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. Nowadays pot has much higher concentrations of THC — 13 percent on average, according to the Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi. (That's significantly stronger than the strains smoked in the 1970s.)

It might not get you high, but hemp has many other uses. It can be woven into fabric, or used to make paper. The fibers are used for animal bedding and can be mixed into a building product called "hempcrete." Hemp was grown extensively in the U.S. during World War II; the U.S. Department of Agriculture even rolled out a Hemp for Victory campaign to encourage farmers to plant hemp after war with Japan cut off Asian imports of the crop. But the last hemp processing plant in the U.S. closed in the mid-1950s, as a result of hemp regulations Kidd says were based on "fear tactics" and misinformation perpetuated during the 1940s and '50s that equated hemp with marijuana.

Twelve farmers have already registered with the Agency of Agriculture to grow hemp during the 2014 growing season. It's a fairly painless process; farmers must send in $25 and a one-page registration form in which they acknowledge that cultivating and possessing hemp in Vermont is a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act; applicants agree to "hold harmless" the state should they find themselves in legal trouble.

The new U.S. Farm Bill, passed in February, does carve out one exception for hemp cultivation at the federal level; the bill gives the go-ahead to research institutions and universities to grow hemp for pilot projects and research. There's still some legal confusion around the prospect, but at least one state — Kentucky — is set to put seeds in the ground this spring. The Bluegrass State's attorney general weighed in with a favorable interpretation of the Farm Bill provision.

Even so, "We're having a whale of a time getting seeds in here," Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told the Lexington Herald-Leader, noting that customs officials turned some seeds back at the border. Comer told the paper that his department has obtained about 500 pounds of seed, but that is only enough for about 10 cultivated acres. With hundreds of potential growers signaling interest via the ag department's website, demand far exceeds supply.

Scientists and agronomists at the University of Vermont are just as eager to plant this year, but seeds have to be in the ground by the end of next month. Vote Hemp's cofounder and director Eric Lineback, who lives in Dummerston, isn't holding his breath.

But within a year, Lineback predicted, the confusion over seed sourcing and legal questions will be "all be worked out, and you'll see a ton of studies going next year."

Lineback admits that his predictions about hemp aren't always accurate; he once guessed that hemp cultivation would be legal in the U.S. by 2000, a benchmark that came and went. Now, though, he's starting to feel cautiously optimistic that federal rules will fall into line behind states like Vermont that are exploring hemp cultivation. Federal hemp legislation has been slowly gaining steam — and sponsors — during its recurrent appearances in the U.S. House of Representatives, and last year saw the first industrial hemp bill introduced in the Senate.

"I've been in this issue for coming up on 20 years, and I can confidently say we are at a tipping point," Lineback said. "It's food, fuel, fiber, clothing, shelter. It's really an amazing plant. It's not going to save the world, but it's certainly part of the solution."

Husband-and-wife team Markowski and Mahoney say they've already signaled to UVM that they'd be interested in being a test site for hemp cultivation. But they're also willing to forge ahead on their own; Markowski said he views hemp cultivation as a form of "civil disobedience." The two live on an eclectic homestead in Panton, where their small farm is a sort of sanctuary for rescued farm animals. Ducks waddle around the yard, searching out patches of sunshine. A rescued cow, born prematurely on a dairy farm, looks on from her pasture.

The couple has a growing garlic farm, and their gardening Bible is Ruth Stout's Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent. "There's a certain advancement to finding the most simple way to do something," says Markowski.

With that mindset, he and Mahoney are eager to cultivate hemp. "It's an amazing plant that so badly wants to grow," said Markowski. Specifically, they'd love to cultivate hemp seeds for their own consumption. "It is the super food," said Markowski.

Johnny Vitko, in Warren, is equally excited about the plant — though he plans to feed the seeds to his chickens. He and his wife own an ice cream shop in Waitsfield and keep 200 chickens, whose eggs make their way into their ice cream custards.

"It's a great food for them," he said, noting hemp is loaded with amino acids and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

As a small farmer, Vitko doesn't have the infrastructure to raise corn or soybeans, but hemp would be another story; he envisions harvesting the stalks with his small, Italian-made walk-behind tractor. Eventually he'd like to turn the stalks into pellets for heating fuel. He hopes to cultivate an acre or two of hemp — enough to feed his chickens through the winter.

"I'm spending upwards of $100 a week on chicken feed in the winter," said Vitko. "I find if I do things myself, I save more money in the long run."

Vitko's plan is to buy seeds online; he's already located a source, though some hemp activists warn you don't know what you're getting.

There's a sharp irony in trying to acquire seeds for cultivation, Vitko noted: "I could find high-grade marijuana seeds a lot easier than I could viable hemp seeds."

Farmers aren't the only Vermonters interested in local hemp production. In Middlebury, Netaka White and David McManus want to source seeds regionally for the production of canola, sunflower, flax, soybean and hemp oil. Their venture, Full Sun Company, will press the seeds to produce edible oils; the byproduct of that process will then be used for feed at local farms.

They've already begun producing some organic, non-GMO sunflower and canola oil. Until they can source hemp locally, they'll contract with a Canadian producer and presser, then import hemp oil from Ontario.

White is no stranger to hemp; his background is in textile design and manufacturing, and from 1989 to 2002 he ran a bag and accessory line made from European hemp canvas. "I was fascinated by its versatility, the charm of it being related to its illegal cousin," White said, remembering his introduction to the fiber. "It struck me as, Why don't more people know about this?"

Now he's excited about the possibility of local hemp cultivation. "It grows well here," he said. "It fits to our scale of production. And there's a whole lot of value-adding opportunities that we haven't even begun to appreciate."

From White's perspective, one of the obvious markets is oil. "We've been telling farmers and those interested: 'We are open for business to buy any Vermont hemp seed,'" he said, adding that Full Sun wants to be processing locally grown hemp "as soon as possible."

While farmers and activists alike recognize and acknowledge the legal gray area that still hovers around hemp cultivation, few are expressing serious concern about the ramifications of planting. "You literally are betting the farm if you grow hemp," said Lineback, noting that farmers who run afoul of the feds could see their land seized.

White's Full Sun would also be risking federal prosecution for possessing hemp.

"We understand the risks and are willing to go forward in pioneering this new industry," White said. "I would be very surprised if the federal government thought it was worthwhile to annoy or hassle a few Vermont farmers growing a non-psychoactive crop."

Markowski, in Panton, agreed.

"You really want to make an example of salt-of-the-earth people trying to grow this kind of crop in their backyard?" he asked. "That is crazy."

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