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Vermont Hemp Growers, Processors Look Back On A Season Of Lessons Learned

A man holds out a handful of green buds.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Ben James of Bravo Botanicals shows off hemp buds that will be processed into CBD oil. James says by growing the hemp and then selling the oil, he sees a better return than people who sell the raw material.

The number of people who grew hemp in Vermont this year more than doubled, and with a steep increase like that, there have been some growing pains among farmers and processors.

The barn behind Ben James’s house in Guilford looks just like any other barn you’d see along a dirt road in Vermont. On its outside, weathered red clapboards suggest a more productive past, when cows and sheep roamed the fields, while today it looks more like a garage with tools and sports equipment littered about.

But upon following James inside, he peels back a floor-to-ceiling piece of plastic to reveal hundreds of hemp branches, hanging from long poles that are secured to the barn rafters overhead.

More from VPR: Yes, You Can Smoke Hemp. And Yes, It's Gaining Popularity [Aug. 22]

“So here we have our drying room,” James said. Fans are set up and buzzing. “And as you can see, we get very large buds — like arm-sized buds.”

These sticky buds are packed with cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which James says will eventually make its way into the products he and his partner produce for their company, Bravo Botanicals.

A lot of people grew hemp this yearthinking they’d be able to sell the plants and make a profit. With so much hemp around, though, the prices for the plants are low. So some producers, like James, are processing their plants for CBD oil, too.

"By the time we get it into oil, into a bottle, it's worth well over ten times what it would be worth selling it by the pound. So that's the model that works for us." — Ben James, Bravo Botanicals

“It’s more work, but we see an increased value in the plant,” he says. “By the time we get it into oil, into a bottle, it’s worth well over 10 times what it would be worth selling it by the pound. So that’s the model that works for us.”

It’s been a season of learning for a lot of people involved in Vermont’s hemp industry.

Last year, about 460 people grew hemp in Vermont, while about 970 registered to do so this year.

Stephanie Smith, who’s with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the state is just beginning to send out to surveys to see how people did this year. But she said some of the farmers ended up with failed crops because they didn’t have enough experience growing  in Vermont’s climate.

white bales in cloth in a factory room.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Bales of hemp wait to be processed at Northeast Processing in Brattleboro.

She added that because cannabis hemp has been illegal in the past, there’s still a lot of trial and error in discovering which plants perform best in the northeast.

“Due to prohibition of cannabis for decades, there hasn’t been a lot of research into the genetics related to the plant,” Smith said.

Another challenge for growers has been finding a processor to extract the CBD oil from the plant.

Carl Christianson opened Northeast Processing in Brattleboro about a year ago, and he knew this harvest would be a busy one.

 “At this point we’re full,” Christianson said. “We’re fully committed to our farming partners that we’re working with right now.”

A person in a mask holds a syringe.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Daniel Olszewski fills tincture bottles at Northeast Processing in Brattleboro. Northeast Processing is full up on contracts with hemp farmers.

Christianson says everyone is learning something this year, and for him, it’s trying to build a business while state and federal rules are still being written. At the same time, he's trying to tout the superiority of local Vermont products in an industry with very little oversight or standard quality assurances.

“Part of the stress is, you’re a start-up company in a start-up industry, so you’re working with other start-up companies,” he said. “So I think that there’s a lot of, you know, people trying to figure this all out together.”

"Part of the stress is, you're a start-up company in a start-up industry, so you're working with other start-up companies. So I think that there's a lot of, you know, people trying to figure this all out together." — Carl Christianson, Northeast Processing

Charlie Robb is a second generation farmer in West Brattleboro, and he thought growing hemp would be a great way to diversify his business.

Robb grew about 1,200 plants. For now they’re hanging in the barn, because Robb failed to secure a contract with a processor, and there’s nowhere to take them.

Robb read all the stories last year about the CBD boom, and about how relatively easy and cheap it was to grow hemp.

A man stands with plants hanging down behind him.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
West Brattleboro farmer Charlie Robb successfully grew about 1200 hemp plants this year, but they're currently hanging in his barn because he can't find a processor to take them.

“You know, the farmers, they’d see the numbers and they’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s something I could do,’” Robb said. “And farmers do what farmers do, they grow it. And the processing hasn’t kept up. It’s just a growing industry I guess. It’s gotta figure out the kinks."

Robb’s trying to dry the hemp adequately so it can be processed when there’s an opening later in the season. He says he’s not 100% sure yet that he’ll grow it again next year.

He’s going to have to see how the numbers shake out.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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