VOORHEESVILLE, N.Y. — John Langdon currently raises 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans and wants to diversify his farm’s income.
Fifth-generation farmer Dwayne Reed is looking for more productive use of his land.
Adam Prior grows hay on 500 acres, but is considering a move to small grains as well.
They’re among the more than 100 people who turned out recently to learn about industrial hemp, which is on its way to becoming a more than $2 billion industry in New York.
“The market is growing remarkably right now,” said Larry Smart, Cornell University horticulture professor. Smart, area growers and Chris Logue, of the state agriculture department, discussed “ins and outs” of the hemp industry during a Jan. 17 presentation at Albany County Extension offices.
Under the recently adopted U.S. Farm Bill, hemp is no longer defined the same as marijuana, giving farmers greater opportunities to grow it for a multitude of end uses, from textiles to health and wellness products such as soaps, lotions and lip balms.
“That’s a really good thing,” said Logue, director of the state Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Plant Industry. “It takes the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) out of the picture a little, so it’s easier to obtain seed.”
For struggling farmers, strapped with high property taxes, the crop offers a chance to boost revenue streams.
“It’s still a pretty new industry,” said Langdon, of Columbia County. “We’re not sure what the infrastructure is. It does have pretty high profitability per acre. That’s one of the things that excites.”
Langdon’s wife, Nellie said, “It’s an alternative medicine, a dirt-grown medicinal product. It’s not chemical. So I feel that’s beneficial.”
Reed owns Broad Acres Reed Farm in Pittstown, Rensselaer County.
“We’re always interested to see what we can do to make a living off the land,” he said. “We’ve got good land. It’s a matter of seeing if it can be grown and harvested, and if there’s a local market, a processor that we can sell it to.”
Smart said this is the most important consideration before going into production as any successful venture starts with a good business plan.
Despite the recent reclassification, state permits are still required to grow hemp, which must also be tested for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the mind-altering chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. THC concentrations higher than .03 percent are not legal.
Hemp grower Ben Dobson urged farmers to get a signed sales agreement from buyers. “You really have to draw the line with customers and tell them, ‘Here are the rules you have to follow.’ It’s a way of covering liability,” he said.
From 10 growers, mostly colleges such as Cornell and SUNY Morrisville, which took part in a pilot research project in 2016, there are now 181 sites with 3,000 acres under production across New York. In addition, the state agriculture department is currently reviewing another 348 recently-submitted applications.
“I continue to be surprised by how many people are interested in it,” Logue said. “It’s great to see. At one of these programs the other day, 60 people filled a room designed to hold 20.”
However, there is already a well-established market for hemp raised for grain and fiber in Canada; likewise for CBD (cannabidiol) oil in China.
“So we’ll have to do it better and cheaper here,” Smart said.
CBD oil is used to make health and wellness products.
“We’re growing hemp for CBD oil,” said Iris Rogers, co-owner of Homestead Hemp in Hebron, Washington County, with her sister, Sarah Murphy. “It’s so good for you. It has the medicinal properties of marijuana without the high. It’s helpful for so many things like arthritis, anxiety, depression. We sell our hemp to processors that turn it into oil and then sell it. Hopefully in the future we can launch our own oil, but we’re not there yet.”
Most of the farmers in attendance said this is what they’d like to raise hemp for, too, as CBD oil has greater profit potential than hemp raised for fiber or grain.
However, program presenters cautioned farmers about some of the many challenges involved with growing hemp. For example, hemp raised for fiber is quite tall and thin and gets easily wrapped around moving parts in harvesting equipment.
“This was our first year,” Rogers said. “We did everything by hand this year. We’d like to expand, but we’re not sure if we can without a mechanized way of doing it.”
Also, Smart said hemp is quite finicky at planting time.
“The planting date is very critical,” he said. “It’s very sensitive to day length. You want to plant early.”
Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist Maire Ullrich, who participated in the program via video-conferencing, is an eastern New York hemp educator.
“My recommendation is start small so it’s doable,” she said. Because of high seed costs, “it is pretty expensive to put in. The bottom line is, this is farming. If you grow $10,000, it costs $9,000 to grow it. Nobody’s going to become a millionaire overnight on this.”
Permits for raising fiber or grain hemp may be applied for any time.
But there is a very small window, which recently closed, for CBD oil-related applications. The next application period has not been announced.
The state agriculture department limited CBD applications “because of the increasing interest in this area and the need for additional information from growers and processors,” spokesperson Jola Szubielski said. “Having a specific application period is allowing the department to better assess the number of interested participants in this field and will help us determine next steps in working with CBD research partners under the state’s industrial hemp research program.”
The University of Vermont and Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets are planning a full, one-day conference about hemp on Feb. 8 at the Hilton Burlington Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
Multiple breakout sessions will include educational and information sharing opportunities on the types of hemp grown for food, fiber and flower including breeding and selection of hemp for CBD production, and growing, harvesting, and drying and storage methods.
For information go to https://agriculture.vermont.gov/event/2019-industrial-hemp-conference.