Business & Economy

Slow growing: Hemp cultivation stymied by federal rules

A number of Vermont farmers would like to grow hemp, which has uses ranging from cosmetics to biofuel. There’s a catch, however: The federal government could arrest them for growing the plant because it is a variety of the marijuana plant.

Hemp plants growing in Chittenden. Photo courtesy of Robin Alberti
Hemp plants growing in Chittenden. Photo courtesy of Robin Alberti

The Vermont Legislature endorsed the production of industrial hemp in 2013 when it passed Act 84. The law cites the low-THC strain of Cannabis sativa, or hemp, as useful in producing “high-strength fiber, textiles, clothing, biofuel, paper products, protein-rich foods, biodegradable plastics, resins, nontoxic medicinal and cosmetic products, construction materials, rope, value-added crafts, livestock feed and bedding, stream buffering, erosion control, water and soil purification and weed control.”

It’s a question of opportunity for farmers like Ken Manfredi and his partner, Robin Alberti, who grew a quarter-acre of hemp last year on leased land in the town of Chittenden.

“Hemp has great potential for economic revival here in Vermont,” Manfredi said.

And it’s hardly a new idea – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were farmers, grew hemp because of its utility.

Marijuana and industrial hemp are two varieties of the same species, Cannabis sativa. By definition, however, industrial hemp contains no more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant, and cannot produce a high unless consumed in large quantities.

Act 84 legalized the growing of industrial hemp in Vermont, with the caveat that producers register with the state and be notified that cultivation of the plant remains a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In 2014, however, President Barack Obama signed a farm bill under which higher education institutions and state agriculture agencies could grow industrial cannabis “for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program” notwithstanding the act, which treats all cultivars of the species as illegal.

The 357 pages of the farm bill made no mention of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which enforces the Controlled Substances Act. Federal narcotics officials have, however, long required that anyone importing cannabis seeds obtain a permit; and importing seeds from places where hemp cultivation is fully legal is the recourse for research institutions, since there are no U.S. suppliers of certified hemp seed – that is, seed certified to have the characteristics sought, such as high oil or fiber content.

Hemp seeds. Photo courtesy N. White
Hemp seeds. Photo courtesy N. White

University of Vermont field crops expert Heather Darby said that some of her faculty colleagues have taken an interest in working with hemp.

“Initial research, if we receive proper permits, will focus on basic production and agronomy,” she said in an email. She noted that companies as diverse as cosmetics manufacturer Nivea and automaker Ford “have been in contact with us here in Vermont, looking for opportunities.” The latter, she elaborated, “would use the fiber in a number of interior parts of the vehicle — dashboards would be one.”

But having to start with seeds that the DEA treats as marijuana puts the university in what she termed “an interesting situation. Do you move forward with research and put yourself at risk of prosecution?”

“The DOJ and the DEA aren’t part of the farm bill – they don’t follow the same rules,” she said, referring to the Department of Justice, which includes the DEA. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Government Catch-22

The Controlled Substances Act “creates a closed system,” DEA spokesperson Barbara Carreno said. To track materials in that system, it requires registration of the substances’ handlers.

In theory at least, the act tasks the DEA “with tracking the flow of all controlled substances in the United States. Collectively, that would include all the seeds,” Carreno elaborated in a follow-up email. Monitoring every cannabis seed once it enters the country may seem as hopeless a task as following a BB pellet as it rolls around in a boxcar, and as legalization of cannabis gains momentum across the country, but the DEA is not abandoning what it perceives as its duty.

In the tug of war over cannabis, the agency has yielded some ground. In May 2014, three months after the farm bill’s enactment, the state of Kentucky imported 130 kilograms of hemp seeds from Italy, only to have the DEA seize the shipment on its way to several Kentucky universities and farmers contracted for a pilot growing program overseen by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Two lawsuits ensued. The DEA backed off and allowed the program to proceed.

“At this point, we don’t see importation as being a limiting factor on the program, because we have a process that is satisfactory to both DEA and the [Kentucky] Department of Agriculture,” said the department’s industrial hemp program coordinator, Adam Watson.

Vermont’s industry

Some Vermonters are eager to test industrial hemp’s potential here. Last year, 17 parties registered to grow the crop. Tim Schmalz, who manages the registry at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the registrants expected to grow 190.41 acres all told, but only about an acre was actually planted. The shortfall, he said, was because of difficulties in getting seed and the tendency of would-be farmers not to realize the amount of work involved.

As of March, only five parties have registered with the state to grow the crop this year. They include Joel Bedard of Huntington, who said he hoped to get through the DEA red tape and import as much as 3,000 pounds of seed, which would yield up to 100 acres to be cultivated by farmers contracting with him as a broker. He sees hemp as a jack-of-all-trades crop and identified two Vermont breweries that might make hemp beer. The crop’s uses, he said, include remediation of polluted waterways, since very dense plantings filter runoff, preventing it from entering the water.

Hemp is also “capable of fixing heavy metals [and even] radioactive isotopes,” he said. “It was utilized at Chernobyl.”

Some cultivars’ seeds, he said, contain up to 30 percent oil, a percentage he termed “off the charts. And the hearts are more nutritious than flax seed. And it’s gluten-free.”

For processing, his crops would go to Full Sun Company in Middlebury.

Netaka White, a co-founder of Full Sun, grew a garden plot of industrial hemp using low-THC seed ordered online from Europe last year – enough to yield a pound of seeds. This year, he intends to plant that seed, which he hopes will produce 60 pounds. In 2016, a 60 pound planting could yield a two-ton seed crop, enough by his calculation to plant 260 acres in 2017. That season’s yield would be enough to begin commercial processing for feed meal as well as food oil, which UVM’s Darby characterized as “the low hanging fruit” for Vermont’s nascent hemp industry, since processing facilities such as Full Sun already exist.

Too small to bust?

White did not obtain a DEA permit to import his seed. The DEA hasn’t come after him, he said, because “I really have to believe that the DEA doesn’t have a lot of interest in pursuing small endeavors.” An August 2013 policy memorandum issued to U.S. attorneys by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, outlined eight priority areas for enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. Cultivation of industrial hemp was not one of them.

For their 2014 crop, Manfredi and Alberti, who like White have signed on to the state registry, ordered food-grade hemp seeds from abroad, since hemp as food can be imported legally, although the growing characteristics of the noncertified seed are unknown. They viewed the effort as experimental.

But, even with their quarter-acre – a thousand plants — “we still had the biggest legal plot in the Northeast,” Manfredi said.

Manfredi and Alberti are using the yield from those plants solely for seed.

“We’re going to expand from what we did,” Alberti said. “We’d love to get as many acres as we can.”

She and Manfredi would like ultimately to concentrate on growing a high-oil variety for pressing. They are not growing the seed on their own land, however, and that could put the farmers hosting the crop at risk of an uninvited visit from the DEA.

Hemp plants growing in Chittenden. Photo courtesy of Robin Alberti
Hemp plants growing in Chittenden. Photo courtesy of Robin Alberti

“The Farm Bill does not exempt farmers in general from federal law that prohibits the growing of hemp,” the DEA’s Carreno said. Such farmers “could be at risk of DEA action. That said, in allocating its enforcement resources, DEA applies the guidance” in the Cole memo.

All of which answers the crucial question of possible busts with a definite maybe. In an interview, Schmalz expressed the uncertainty hovering over growers: “DEA reserves authority to come in and intervene if they feel someone is growing cannabis that might be more than 0.3% THC.”

Against that backdrop, Manfredi, Alberti, Bedard and White are supporting legislation in Congress that would remove barriers to the commercial production of industrial hemp by simply excluding low-THC cannabis from the federal definition of marijuana.

Sponsors include majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Senate and Peter Welch, D-Vt., in the House. In a noncommittal statement, the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he looked forward to “consideration of the bill on its merits” in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, of which he is the ranking member. Jeff Frank, a spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said only that Sanders had sponsored similar legislation in the past.

With Kentucky — and cannabis-friendly Colorado — already making strides in hemp production, Vermont’s challenge may be to leverage its advantages before hemp’s potential finds a home in other states.

“If farmers are growing hemp for human consumption, for example, or the production of cosmetics, the Vermont label has a certain value,” Schmalz noted, alluding to the marketing factors that give “pure Vermont maple syrup” an aura that “pure Wisconsin maple syrup” hasn’t matched.

“We’re breaking new ground, and there are going to be some hiccups, but once they’re ironed out, hemp is … a good addition to the crops that Vermont farmers can grow,” Schmalz said.

“I imagine it is just a matter of time,” UVM’s Darby said, “before all this [legal wrangling] seems ridiculous and people look back and wonder how this happened.”

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C.B. Hall

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  • Bill Olenick

    Here we are once again up against a wall of big centralized government with different segments running counter to each other.
    We need to change the whole kit and caboodle by striping power from big government and putting it back at the local level.
    The DEA are against it as by legalizing it the DEA would loose power and funding regarding their controls nationwide and would be dead set against it as it would greatly reduce their size and power base thus the DEA becomes self serving and not civil serving.
    Let us look at this from a reasonable common sense approach.
    Industrial hemp was outlawed by an over reactive group of elected officials regarding a drug problem that this product had nothing to do with, hence being installed via ignorant policies that are long overdue to be repealed.
    This plant has many uses and in practical farming applications would be a valuable addition in Vermont farms planting rotation and can be used to fuel greenhouses,for example, along with so many other uses.
    The year is 2015 and not many decades ago, so lets not get stuck in primitive though processes when with the knowledge we have today we know this is a very beneficial plant that has nothing to do with getting high.
    It was outlawed because it looked like the plant that gets you high and law enforcement at the time found it easier to ban it outright thus making their enforcement much easier.
    Please let us do away with outdated policies that support a bloated central government while stifling local industry and the families they could support.
    This state and our nation can no longer afford it…

    • Joel Bedard

      We’re doing what we can, Mr Olenick. The individuals mentioned in the article are working to create a State of Vermont Chapter of the Hemp Industries Association. There are still challenges to overcome, but the needle moves forward daily. I appreciate your support, and look forward to helping to lead Vermont into this old/new agricultural industry.

  • To Hell with growing hemp. With the impending crops crisis in California, we all ought to be starting seeds for our summer, fall, and next winter’s supply of veggies.

    • Bill Olenick

      Mr.Whelan.
      I perfectly agree that we should be growing gardens but are you the same Mr.Joseph F.Whelan who works for a nationwide company who makes drug test kits?
      If that is the case then would not your company lose serious market share if industrial hemp was legalized?
      If this is the case than your comment should be taken with a large chunk of rock salt in all due respect Sir.

  • Joel Bedard

    For my part, I would like to extend my appreciations to CB Hall, for a solid write-up and an enjoyable experience. I look forward to great progress in 2015, and encourage anyone interested in this subject matter to reach out to myself directly or to the Vermont HIA chapter via our facebook page.

  • Michael Badamo

    I grow hemp. It is a delightful species. This year I have registered with the Ag Department. I’ll only grow a few plants this season, make some seed, and see how it goes.

    The Vermont hemp law is one of the best pieces of legislative drafting I have ever seen. It is simple, straightforward and comprehensive, only a few short words. Pay $25 and go ahead, grow it.

  • Tom Sullivan

    My question is how would you prevent someone (anyone) from planting a high thc strain of marijuana in the middle of your hemp field? I’m guessing it would be nearly identical in appearance to its low/no thc cousin, which would be the concern of course.

    • Joel Bedard

      Tom–Industrial Hemp requires seeding for proper resource allocation–effectively, the plants are hermaphroditic. Recreational and medicinal applications of Cannabis requires that no seeding occurs. In fact, it is not unconceivable that hemp fields will contaminate recreational/medicinal grows.

      Further, the VSA clearly states that the hemp will be certified below 0.03% THC content. There is a verifiable test to determine this, and if the State or DEA determine that someone is ‘gaming the system’, they are subject to prosecution at State and Federal levels.

      In short–there is ZERO concern. Hemp pollen would destroy a recreational/medicinal grow.

  • Tom Sullivan

    Hey Joel, thanks for your response.

    Your response prompts me to ask, isn’t pollen contamination a 2 way street? Meaning, if pollen from a hemp field can contaminate a medicinal grow, then it would be conceivable that pollen from a medicinal grow could contaminate/pollinate and raise thc level in hemp?

    Thanks Joel

    • Joel Bedard

      Hi Tom,

      That is indeed a two-way street. One of the challenges to re-developing this industry, is to bring it into the contemporary agricultural economy. The USA imports between $500~$750mil worth of raw hemp materials annually. The USA is the only developed nation on the planet that does not allow hemp cultivation on a commercial scale.

      We are literally pissing money away as a nation over this, pardon my language.

      Recreational/medicinal Cannabis rarely, if ever, deals with pollen. Industrial hemp has pedigree standards and certification thresholds that must be maintained. The seed that I purchase this year does not give me carte blanche for future plantings, without due consideration to the owners of the intellectual property of the genetic strain.

      This can be far more than a ‘backyard revolution’.

  • Michael Badamo

    You are correct, Tom. It’s a two way street and that’s why medicinal growers and hemp growers are terrified of each other.

  • Steve Merrill

    “Terrified”–I think not, no more than I’m “terrified” that bees pollinating my heirloom tomatoes also could cross them with IVF hybrids from a neighbor’s garden. Thanks to Bill Olenick to “outing” the drug-tester exec. and Annie for allowing it, otherwise we’d never know the connections. My concern is Freedom, plain and simple, are WE a free country or not? My Ukrainian mother was aghast that WE could/would be told what we could grow, eat, or drink, coming from Stalin’s USSR and never looking back. Why do we, the public, say/do nothing to the DEA for their failure to bust any heroin “kingpins” while they accept “gifts” & hookers from Columbian Cartels? (In last weeks BFP) A 1914 USDA report stated that 1 acre of Hemp made as much paper fiber as 20 acres of trees taking 20 yrs. to mature (see book “Smoke Signals” by Martin Lee) and please Google “US Patent 6630507” to see the incredible benefits of this plant, so many that HHS granted ALL the compounds in the plant to Big Pharma. It is NOT a hoax, Bernie looked into it along with Dr. Sanjay Gupta but HHS refused comment, all the studies/citations are right there, highlighted for easy linkage. Why must I buy Hemp Hearts(Crushed Seeds) from Canada at a local Nat.’l food store when I should be able to buy local, same with the oil? I have a terminal disease and was given 10 yrs. to live in ’94, but the hemp/med-pot has me stable and living (almost) normally..I WILL grow my own, breeding indoors in winter, growing outdoors in summer as WE have a right, EVERY one of us, to use a medical defense if they decide to arrest us whether we have a Vt. “Permit” (good luck finding a Dr. to sign one!) or not..It’s up to US to keep and maintain our health, and tell the Feds to try and find honest work..Freedom & Unity!! If you can’t remember the words, just remember the F/U!! Who says our founders didn’t have a sense of humor? The whole prohibition of Cannabis (“marijuana” was a pejorative linking it to Mexicans in the 1930’s) was based on a lie, lets live the truth and walk in the light, we are right, they are WRONG..SM, N. Troy