MIDDLEBURY — At a meeting in Middlebury last Wednesday evening, the crowd was bullish on hemp as a cash crop.
Netaka White, bio-energy program director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, told some 15 people gathered at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission that by his rough calculations American farmers could make as much as $3,800 per acre of industrial hemp, selling it for use as food, fiber, building material and bio-fuel. That, he said, is a higher yield than grain crops like corn and wheat, and results in part from the ability to use every part of the plant, from the seed to the stalk.
The catch: White’s calculations are made based on the prices farmers can get for the crop in Canada or Europe, since industrial hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S. under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Though Vermont passed a bill in 2008 allowing the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to oversee hemp production within the state —supplying seeds and conducting field inspections — that system will not go into effect unless hemp is exempted from the Controlled Substances Act. Vermont is one of eight states to pass similar legislation.
White said industrial hemp bears none of the psychoactive traits of its cannabinoid cousin, marijuana. While levels of THC, the primary chemical that causes psychoactive reactions in marijuana, are limited to between 0.1 and 0.3 percent in most industrial hemp-producing countries, a 2009 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report states that THC levels in most marijuana range from 5 to 20 percent.
Additionally, said White, when the two types of cannabis plant are allowed to cross-pollinate, THC levels in the marijuana become diluted and the resulting drug is less potent. That means industrial hemp would be unlikely to provide a cover for a marijuana-growing operation.
White said that aside from the raw materials the hemp plant provides, its deep roots break up clotted soils and its dense growth patterns naturally kill weeds; as a result it needs no herbicide to grow and is a potential crop for field rotation with corn and other grains.
For now, companies within the U.S. that use hemp seeds, hemp cloth or hemp fiber must import the plant from outside of the country — primarily from Canada.
Tom Simon of Hempfully Green, a Putney company that makes hemp building materials and insulation, said that importing the raw materials makes their product much more expensive than it could be.
“If we could grow it here, the cost would be considerably less,” said Simon.
Rob Kidd of the Montpelier-based advocacy group Rural Vermont, which hosted Wednesday’s meeting, reported that the organization’s lobbying on the hemp issue has mostly moved from the state to the federal level at this point, given widespread support for industrial hemp by state politicians.
“We’ve seen three straight legislatures that have overwhelmingly supported hemp,” said Kidd.
In Congress, Kidd said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has confirmed support on the industrial hemp issue — he cosponsored the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2011, which is still in committee. Now the organization has set its sights on Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Leahy spokesperson David Carle said the senator does not yet have an official statement on the matter.
“This issue intersects with a variety of other policy areas, and he’s gathering information to be able to soundly evaluate it,” said Carle.
Last Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill currently working its way through the Senate that would exempt industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana on the federal books. The bill, which will determine the next five years of federal farm and food policy, reached the Senate floor for debate and amendment on Thursday, and will likely see extended discussion before it moves from the Senate floor.
Despite Rural Vermont’s uphill battle to reform federal regulations, White said these restrictions against hemp are actually fairly recent, dating to the late 1940s — though hemp production was briefly restarted during World War II, when the government realized it had a serious shortage of rope.
Before that time, hemp was a major crop of the United States. Its components were used to make clothing, canvas and rope, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both hemp farmers. Betsy Ross, said White, crafted the first American flag out of scraps of hemp clothing.
White comes to his research on the hemp industry through firsthand experience: he ran a hemp bag and gear company that in 1998 transitioned to the Greenfields Mercantile shop on Main Street in Middlebury. That shop and café sold products made of hemp and other eco-friendly clothing. Though the store closed its doors in 2004, White’s interest in hemp production and trade remained.
While White said he cannot predict for certain the exact yields that hemp fields in Vermont would return, a 1998 University of Vermont viability study found approximately 100,000 acres of land prime for a hemp crop, and about 200,000 marginal acres.
White said he’s optimistic that, if federal law were amended, Vermont farmers could stand at the forefront of hemp production nationally.
“Vermont can lead the way,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.