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Hemp as a farm crop: GCC workshop to learn about industry draws 100

  • Heather Darby, an experienced hemp grower and associate professor at the University of Vermont, gave a presentation on hemp farming at Greenfield Community College Tuesday night. Staff photo/David McLellan

  • Taryn LaScola, director of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Crops & Pests Services, gave a presentation on the state's interim policy regarding hemp farming, which is still illegal federally, at Greenfield Community College Tuesday night. Staff photo/David McLellan



Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

GREENFIELD — When Massachusetts voters legalized marijuana in 2016, it had another ramification: the legalization of hemp farming.

Hemp is made from the same plant, Cannabis sativa, as many strains of marijuana, but contains levels of the psycho-active drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) too low for people to get high.

The crop can be made into a fiber, usable for making paper, cloth and cords, its seeds pressed for hemp oil, used as a dietary supplement or even fuel, and processed for cannabidiol, also known as CBD, which has purported health benefits.

The notion of growing hemp as a farm crop attracted about 100 area people to a workshop at Greenfield Community College this week. They showed up to hear University of Vermont Associate Professor Heather Darby, an agronomic and soils specialist, and Taryn LaScola, director of Crop & Pest Services at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the state agency that licenses — and inspects — hemp farmers. The two talked about the crop, and answered questions submitted by the crowd and read anonymously.

“Right now, cultivating, growing hemp in the United States is illegal according to the federal government,” said LaScola, who recognized that the rules and regulations around hemp farming are “living,” and any policies in place now are interim and could change.

Still, 30 other states have laws allowing hemp farming, and Massachusetts issued 14 licenses for the 2018 season. The granted licenses are dispersed throughout the state, LaScola said, but most of MDAR’s inquiries came from western Massachusetts.

An exciting aspect of hemp farming is that people don’t have to be commercial farmers already to break into the industry, LaScola said. A hemp farm can be a brand-new operation.

And the crop has a variety of uses, according to Darby, making it an attractive industry to break into.

The quickest way to profit from hemp farming, in Darby’s opinion, is using the crop for hemp oil.

“If you’re looking for some way to get into the marketplace, hemp oil has all the omega-3s and all the others — an expert can probably talk about that more,” Darby said, calling hemp oil “probably the lowest hanging fruit” for commercial hemp farmers.

Hemp oil is used in foods, for fuel and for cosmetic purposes, and is made by pressing the seeds of the hemp plant. Darby suggested the M70 Agoil press as the most efficient extractor of hemp oil, which she has used at Vermont farms, like Borderview Farm in Alburg. The machine costs around $9,000 and, depending on the seed, can work 700 to 1,500 pounds every 24 hours. The machine is easy to use, and one Veri-Die nozzle for the machine can be used on all seed types.

While hemp oil was characterized as a quicker, easier way to break into the commercial hemp product marketplace, the plants yield other products as well.

That includes CBD, one of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in the plants, which has been used in the pharmaceutical industry to treat various conditions like epilepsy. CBD has also been claimed as a natural remedy for ailments like cancer symptoms, pain and depression. However, not enough research has been done to verify many of the claims.

“CBD has a lot of benefits, some studied, some not,” Darby said, adding that CBD plants take longer to be ready to harvest than recreational marijuana plants.

Hemp is also used to make fiber, which has a number of commercial applications, like paper and cloth.

In general, the plants need very fertile soil, and harvesting of the flowers is done largely by hand.

A complexity of hemp farming is that “you don’t really plant hemp depending on the calendar,” Darby said, although she suggested planting be done by the end of May to mid-June.

Hemp also “seems to prefer the drier, warmer weather, rather than the wetter, cooler weather,” Darby said, and yields can vary depending on the weather. The plants are subject to some of the same diseases as other common crops, but the diseases are not common if the crops are rotated.

However, the possibility of conflicts with other farmers — especially marijuana farmers or other hemp farmers — was apparent from several of the questions submitted and read at the end of LaScola’s talk.

“Is the state considering distancing requirements?” one question read.

Apparently, there was some nervousness about cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp farms spaced too closely, which could damage the quality of either specialized type of the Cannabis sativa plants. LaScola said although other states have adopted distancing requirements — Massachusetts has not.

“Some states do. We didn’t tackle that in the first year — notice I said, ‘Interim hemp policy,’” LaScola said. “At this point, we don’t have any restrictions.” Darby suggested in her talk a distance of 15 miles between the different crops.

LaScola said that associations have been formed in other states to serve as a communication channel for hemp farmers, marijuana farmers and the state, and that such avenues are important when policies are still developing.

“I think it’s really important for people to start talking to each other — growers, buyers,” LaScola said. “The associations are where folks really start to get to talk and have a gathering of minds that gets the information out, including to the state as well.”

Applications for a hemp farming license, which must be renewed annually, is $100. The license itself costs $300 for both hemp growers and processors, and a dual license for growing and processing is $500. Hemp farmers are also subject to periodic inspection. The THC content must remain below 0.3 percent to be considered hemp rather than marijuana, and plants with a greater content will be destroyed.

The full MDAR policy on commercial hemp farming can be found at www.mass.gov/files/documents/2018/04/30/Hemp%20Policy.pdf.

The workshop was organized by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. There will be another hemp farming workshop on Nov. 19 at Hampshire College.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.