By Susan Harlow
Even with a few setbacks, John and Melissa Williamson have faith that industrial hemp can eventually help breathe new life into Northeast agriculture. These owners of State Line Farm at Shaftesbury, Vt., know all about adapting to change.
In the 1990s, low milk prices convinced them to diversify their dairy into livestock feed and sweeteners like honey, maple and sweet sorghum syrup. Then, 10 years ago, John built a small-scale processing facility to process oilseeds into feed and biodiesel.
Plummeting oil prices dragged down biodiesel prices, and last year the Williamsons were back to looking for new ways to sustain their farm. “Who would have thought that fuel prices would ever drop below $2?” John says, shaking his head.
“Vermont is one of the easiest states of all to get a permit to grow hemp,” he adds. “It was an opportunity for us to give hemp a fair shake.”
And shake it, they did. In 2016, Williamson planted 22 acres of hemp. It wasn’t a totally successful venture. The tall plants badly bound up their combine, limiting harvest to only half their crop. So they didn’t plant any in 2017.
Then there was the thievery. Thieves regularly stole plants from their fields — in one case, an entire truckload.
In 2013, Vermont passed a law allowing industrial hemp cultivation. The Williamsons contacted Vermont State Police early on about their project. Those who didn’t get the message that it was hemp — not marijuana — were likely disappointed after raiding the fields.
While last year’s hemp acreage was planted to sweet sorghum this year, they discovered one hemp advantage: “I'm happy with how easy hemp is to grow,” says John. “After growing it, I wonder why it was ever illegal.”
So what about next year? Williamson hopes to secure a Canadian variety better for oilseed production — one that’s shorter with uniform heads and easier to combine — if he can get a resistant U.S. Customs to permit it. As for theft, that’s a whole different issue.
Roll back to 2016
The Williamsons teamed up with Doug Fine, a New Mexican hemp advocate; Robin Alberti and Ken Manfredi of Killington, Vt., to form The Family Green LLC. The business’ goal was to grow and market industrial hemp.
“I’m the farmer guy,” says Williamson, who shifted 22 acres of sunflowers into hemp. By late-summer 2016, the Williamsons were impressed by hemp’s performance and especially by its ability to survive dry weather. One field, a dry knoll, produced 11-foot-tall plants, with several more weeks of growing season to go.
“There are funny things about hemp that go against what I know about farming,” Williamson adds. “What surprised me the most? A field that had been in hay for 10 years, no fertilizer, did great. Hemp roots must have the ability to go down and scrounge up nutrients. It was a fairly dry summer and the hemp was still growing.”
The Williamsons purchased two seed cultivars, one from Colorado, another from Vermont. The seed was certified — guaranteed to have less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that can get you “high.” The short Vermont cultivar was seen as best for producing seeds; the tall Colorado cultivar produces plenty of stem and fiber.
Using a grain drill, Williamson planted hemp in seven fields of different soil profiles, using a range of planting dates, seeding rates and row widths. “There’s a huge difference in fields,” he notes. “If I had only one field to evaluate, I’d have been disappointed.”
Markets and other obstacles remain
Hemp may sound like a farmer’s dream come true. But even in Vermont where it’s legal to grow, certified seed is hard to come by and expensive. Harvesting the tough, fibrous stems turned out to be nearly impossible with a conventional combine. Then there’s the processing and distribution part of the supply chain yet to be developed.
One of hemp’s great advantages is its thousands of uses, and the Family Green LLC plans to investigate many. Selling certified seed tops the list. But they also plan to extract hempseed oil at their oilseed mill. There’s also CBD oil, used for medicinal purposes. Hulled seeds, called hemp hearts, and tea are in demand for human consumption. Leftover hempseed meal from milling is excellent livestock feed and perhaps bedding.
Hemp fiber can be made into clothing and other materials. Rope has long been made from hemp. More recently, car manufacturers are building lighter-weight car bodies with hemp. Added to concrete, it makes a sturdy, lighter building material.
Small niche possibilities
Manfredi and Alberti have grown small amounts of hemp. But within three years, they had produced too much to keep harvesting by hand. So they asked the Williamsons to go into business with them.
“This thing is in its infancy,” contends Manifredi. “We’ll get into the markets where we see the need, and there’s a niche. We’ve put a lot of time, effort and money into it. We can’t even think of slowing down.”
Heather Darby, a University of Vermont Extension agronomist researching hemp, discovered many local businesses were building product around sourcing local hemp grain and fiber. The first obstacle is producing enough seed locally.
“There’ll be some agronomic challenges and some harvesting challenges — no different than trying to grow any new crop,” she maintains. “However, most are fairly easy to overcome.”
Harlow writes from Westminster Station, Vt.