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The entrepreneurial spirit of Vermont's cannabis and hemp growers

vpr-hemp-farm-20140805.jpg
Jon Kalish
/
VPR
Retail cannabis stores are slated to open in Vermont on Oct. 1.

Vermont Public’s Bob Kinzel reported recently on the state of Vermont’s cannabis retail marketplace for Brave Little State. Retail sales will begin soon in Vermont as stores are scheduled to open throughout the state on Oct. 1.

Bob Kinzel joined Vermont’ Public’s Mitch Wertlieb to share some of what he learned talking to cannabis and hemp entrepreneurs. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So all these couples that you spoke with, they're involved in some aspect of Vermont's hemp or CBD marketplace, or the new cannabis marketplace. Are there certain qualities that you found that all these folks share?

Bob Kinzel: Absolutely, Mitch. They are very optimistic about what they're doing. They view challenges as things that need to be overcome. And they all have a sense of purpose. And I should mention right now, Mitch, at the start, that THC is the ingredient that makes a person high, whereas CBD — while it comes from the same cannabis plant — has virtually no THC in it, and is used primarily for medicinal purposes. Very important distinction. THC makes you high; CBD does not.

More from Vermont Public: A year ahead of legal sales, Vt. cannabis regulators want industry to be small-scale, equitable

So, let's start with Colin and Ashley Reynolds, who own Elmore Mountain Therapeutics in Morrisville. They distribute all sorts of CBD products in dozens of states. They just celebrated their fifth anniversary of being in business. And as Colin told me, in the very beginning they needed to keep their day jobs.

"Because it was so brand new and nothing, you know — there was no roadmap of any kind," he said. "And so that kind of ethos of not planting our feet... it was successful for us, and I think that we're gonna carry that forward into the future."

Interesting. So, it sounds like they kind of fell into this business, maybe. How did they get started in the CBD business?

They did, Mitch. It's an amazing story. Ashley Reynolds says she turned to CBD when nothing else was working for her postpartum depression. She had to do all the research herself and she had to develop the products. She found CBD to be very helpful. And soon she made products available for other women. Because she and Colin have been doing this for over five years, they see themselves as mentors to the younger people in Vermont's CBD market.

"And we're kind of viewed as like the, I don't know if you want to say grandparents or mother and father of bringing cannabis mainstream to Vermont," she said. "Our abilities to sort of consult and mentor these individuals, I think has been a real joy for us."

So Bob, it sounds like Ashley and Colin don't actually grow the cannabis plants that produce CBD, but they buy their plants from Vermont growers. So does that make them sort of intermediaries in this process?

Exactly. And it leads us to one of the growers who is expanding from cannabis CBD products to cannabis THC products. That's Family Tree Farm. They're tucked away in a beautiful spot in Sheldon Springs, not far from the Canadian border. The farm is owned by Jane and Ben Lanza. Now, they take a very scientific approach to what they're doing on their farm. Ben told me they use a so-called no-till approach to farming in order to strengthen the soil. So if you look out over their land, Mitch, you'll see cannabis plants surrounded by a cover crop.

"So we're really happy about this field and feel like it can be this funny thing where you show up and you're like, 'So where are the plants? Like where do you farm?' And like, that's it. That lawn you see right there — that's where all the magic's happening," he said.

This is our chance to prove over these next few years, these initial years at the ground floor, so to speak, that we as farmers, and a community can do this and sustain the market versus bringing in corporations from other states.
Ivan Pudan

And Jane says they pay very close attention to every aspect of the growing business.

"We're creating a flavor that's very distinct to this region, that we hope becomes something like a native hop or a native grape in the wine industry — a flavor of Vermont that you're going to only get from this process of embracing the natural elements that we're growing in," she said.

Jane is also hoping that, in the not too distant future, an agritourism industry will develop around cannabis and they'll be giving tours of their farm.

And Bob, I understand you also visited a slightly smaller farm in Barnet that's expanding from its current crop of hemp and CBD products to now include cannabis THC products. Again, that's the ingredient in cannabis that gets people high. These folks have an unusual story. What makes them so unique?

Mitch, this is a company known as Snowbird Botanicals. And it's owned by Cindy and Ivan Pudan. Several years ago, they lived in Florida and they had very different jobs. And then they decided to spend summers in Vermont learning to grow hemp, hence the name: Snowbird Botanicals. Summers in Vermont; winters in Florida. Now they're here full time. And as Ivan told me, they are fully committed to their new venture.

"This is our chance to prove over these next few years — these initial years at the ground floor, so to speak — that we as farmers, and as a community, can do this and sustain the market versus bringing in corporations from other states," he said.

And Mitch, Cindy told me that the shift to farming has been and continues to be a real learning experience for both of them.

"It never ends, never ends," she said. "I think farmers are still in the discovery mode. It's not like we've reached our final stage. I think everyone's discovering something new every time they change something, and then every change you make introduces maybe something else that can happen. And I mean, we've learned a lot in a short amount of time."

Bob, it sounds like they have learned a lot in a short amount of time and enough that they want to stay in Vermont full-time, even through the winters to make this work for them. I get the sense there's a really strong feeling of community spirit with these folks you spoke with. Is that about right?

Mitch, there really is. It was amazing. I think Ivan summed it up best when he told me that they've decided to grow a lot of vegetables this year. And they're doing this so they can give them away to their neighbors.

"So, if we have the property here, and we can just throw the seeds and throw the plants and we're so happy to be able to figure out how to just share it with everyone," he said. "And everyone around here does the same thing. And we just fell in love with it. Because it's not how normal society is in the cities. You know, we're from other cities and lived in other cities. And that's not how it is."

I've always heard that farmers need to be optimistic given all the challenges that they face. And here are three great examples of that positive thinking. I really find their sense of hope to be inspiring.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Bob Kinzel:

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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