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Legal Hemp Growing, But Not Yet Booming In Vermont

Jon Kalish
Hemp grows in the Northeast Kingdom at one of the few farms currently cultivating the plant.

Vermonters have just harvested their second crop of industrial hemp since the Legislature legalized it in 2013. But because of obstacles to cultivating hemp in the state, few farmers have grown the crop.

Last year only a half dozen people grew hemp in Vermont. This year, according to one grower, the number is up to nine.

One of the new growers is 23-year-old Evan Donovan who lives in the Northeast Kingdom.

Because industrial hemp is still classified as acontrolled substance by the federal government, he is reluctant to publicize the exact location of his farm. 

“We had about 2,000 plants this year from a pound of seeds, which was very good,” says Donovan. “We have about 80 acres here. I’m hoping next year that I can put hemp on about 10 to 15 of the acres and really increase production size.”

Donovan and the other Vermont hemp farmersimported their seed illegally.

In spite of it being legal to grow hemp in Vermont, under federal law the entire plant is considered a controlled substance. The hemp growers have had difficulty obtaining seed and want the Agency for Agriculture to facilitate its importation.

But the agency says it doesn’t have the staff or the resources to devote to that or researching hemp cultivation. That’s a shame, says Andrea Stander, director of Rural Vermont.

“I think we are seeing a transition nationally and hemp is going to return as the major agricultural crop that it once was in this country,” she says. “If we as a state don’t recognize that and start putting in place the infrastructure and the opportunity for our farmers to be part of that, we will miss out. Other states will get ahead of us.”

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross says that Vermont’s likely future with industrial hemp will involve the making of value-added products, rather than competing with other states producing hemp as a commodity.

Nobody seems to know just how many acres were devoted to hemp in Vermont in 2015 but the number is not very high.

"I think we are seeing a transition nationally and hemp is going to return as the major agricultural crop that it once was in this country. If we as a state don't recognize that ... we will miss out." - Andrea Stander, director of Rural Vermont

Kentucky grew 1,000 acres this year and 20 hemp processing centers were established in the bluegrass state. Hemp was also grown in Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee, Oregon and Hawaii, usually under the aegis of state departments of agriculture or major universities.

The University of Vermont wanted to grow hemp this year because the crop has not been cultivated in the state for many decades.

In August, the university obtained the two federal permits from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration it needed to legally import hemp seed, but by then it was too late in the growing season to plant.

“I was hopeful that we would miraculously make it through all the permitting process this season but the DEA doesn’t operate in growing seasons like we do. They have a different time frame,” says UVM agronomist Heather Darby.

Darby plans to grow hemp on a research farm in Alburg near the Canadian border.

UVM will buy seed from Canada where hemp production is booming. Darby will plant an acre or two next spring, provided federal permits get renewed.

“I feel like we know the people we need to talk to now, we have the forms that we need, we know the questions to ask and they know us,” Darby says. “I feel like things will be smoother. That’s kind of the way it is when you’re an innovator treading down a new path. There’s going to be lots of bumps and challenges.”

VPR spoke to two hemp farmers who planted small plots in the Middlebury and Rutland areas last year.

This year they joined forces and planted a quarter acre in Waitsfield. They say they will take the seeds that were just harvested and plant an acre next year — not exactly explosive growth but progress nevertheless.

On Monday afternoon agriculture secretary Chuck Ross is scheduled to meet with a Hawaiian state legislator, one of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staffers and two Vermont growers to discuss making industrial hemp an agricultural priority.

Manhattan-based radio reporter Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980. Links to radio documentaries, podcasts & stories on NPR are at Find him on Twitter: @kalishjon
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