Growing Hemp in the Hudson Valley (legally)

New York HempPrescott Haymes pours the hemp cocktail into my waiting glass while proudly elucidating about the drink’s origins in the way only a devoted farmer can.

“For this infusion, we used pineapple, cucumber, mint — all fresh — and then, obviously, cannabis,” he said.

The opaque green concoction goes down smooth and balanced, the farm-fresh taste unencumbered by the string of alcohol.

Haymes harvested the plant last night from the fields behind us, and now it’s being ladled out alongside glasses of CBD watermelon-and-rosewater mocktails with hemp-and-basil Himalayan salt.

In fact, the event’s entire menu, devised by Philmont’s Local 111, is prepared with various parts of the hemp plant.

About 50 researchers, farmers and local entrepreneurs gathered at Stone House Farm in Livingston, Columbia County Sept. 22 to hear a panel of experts discuss the future of hemp in the Hudson Valley, though the four-hour event was mostly devoted to mixing, dining and discussion.

Stone House Farm’s hemp is part of a state pilot program launched in 2016 and expanded last year, made possible by a 2014 change in federal law.

The Lightening of a Legal Gray Area

Stone House Farm is not growing marijuana, which refers to a cannabis plant with significant amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC, sought the world over for its ability to calm the tense and make jazz tolerable.

Though sold recreationally in nine states, marijuana is still federally illegal. However, the low-THC cannabis plants at Stone House Farm are legal by even federal standards.

The operation was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, a wide-ranging set of measures passed every four years allotting funding for everything from SNAP benefits to conservation measures to crop insurance. The bill legally separated marijuana and low-THC “industrial hemp,” permitting states to distribute licenses to grow the latter. New York allowed universities and research facilities to apply for licenses in 2016, then expanded licensing to certain farms in 2017, when Stone House Farm was able to nab one.

New York Hemp

A warning sign at Stone Mill Farms in Livingston.

The hemp the farm is growing will be processed into CBD oil by Hudson Hemp, a related business representing a network of local farmers.

CBD oil has found a foothold in New York over the past year for its ability to mildly relax users without getting them high, and a medication derived from the oil was approved this summer for the treatment of two kinds of childhood epilepsy, according to CBS, though advocates say the great bulk of the oil’s medicinal and therapeutic qualities remain unknown due to the oil’s legal position.

CBD oil is “a big gray area” because cannabis and its extracts are still considered a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance by the federal government, said Melany Dobson, the chief administrative officer for Hudson Hemp.

“You can’t be USDA-certified, you can’t receive federal grants for the research…but I will say that it’s really a gray area, because there’s so many functioning CBD companies that have found something that has been working for them,” Melany said. “Of course, there’s some risk involved.”

This uncertainly is why Hudson Hemp has not yet launched a direct-to-consumer product, Melany said, and is instead communicating with the state to figure out the best way forward.

Part of the issue is how CBD oil should be classed. Hudson Hemp’s desire was to market it as a supplement or food, Melany said, instead of running up against the pharmaceutical and medical marijuana industries by marketing it as a medicine.

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, told the audience at the event the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated CBD cannot be sold as a food or dietary supplement, a class he called “the obvious regulatory category for the products.”

“We’re going to have some hard work to do to get the FDA to come around to recognizing that the proper regulation of CBD products is better than saying (that) we’re not allowed to sell them — because people are going to keep buying them, we know that,” he said.

Non-CBD hemp products such as cloth and hemp seed oil (distinct from CBD oil) are legal to sell in the U.S., McGuffin said, but until the Farm Bill of 2014, any hemp products sold in the U.S. were imported, mostly from Canada.

When advocating for hemp to members of Congress, McGuffin often points this out, he said, hoping the economic argument can win them over.

Growing Hemp

Ben Dobson, the managing director of Hudson Hemp and the manager of Stone House Farm, said his family converted the 2,500-acre research farm into an organic produce grower over the last few years.

While chatting with Ben during the event, he makes it clear the plan for growing hemp began with deeper ideals.

“We’re not here because hemp and cannabis [are] cool, and it’s low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Instead, growing hemp is a function of Ben’s philosophy regarding food and agriculture in a country which is “sick medically and food-sick,” he said.

The practice of “regenerative agriculture” forms the basis of the farm, in which food is grown to improve the soils, local ecology and wider environment, instead of traditional Western farming methods, which detract from these things.

Among other methods, the farm uses crop rotation — the alteration of plants with differing chemical needs and outputs — so the assets soaked up by one plant are replaced by the next. Hemp is now part of that rotation, Ben said.

New York Hemp

Hemp at Stone Mill Farm.

A major aspect of modern regenerative agriculture is carbon sequestration, where crops are planted to trap carbon in the soil, which stops the element from escaping into the air and combining with Oxygen molecules to form the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide.

Hemp is excellent at trapping carbon.

Two staffers for state Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, whose district encompasses the farm, attended the event.

Barrett has always been a proponent of regenerative agriculture, they said, calling the practice “the nexus between climate change and agriculture.”

As well as stymying climate change, regenerative practices can cut down on erosion, lead to more fruitful soils, and benefit the farmers economically, they said.

Barrett introduced a bill this June “to study the carbon sequestration potential of a range of farming practices in Columbia and Dutchess counties,” according to the bill’s text.

Soil samples would be studied from farms undertaking carbon sequestration methods, such as no-till farming, planting cover crops, and managing compost application, to gauge how they influence the carbon content of soil. Farmers would be reimbursed for using these methods, according to the bill, which hopes to expand the program in coming years.

The bill has passed the Assembly and the Senate and is waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature to become law.

Adaptation

Brandan Curtin, a farmer at Stone House, said the ideal New York hemp plant would be resistant to mold, copacetic with high humidity, and adept at dealing with the local environment’s heavy, inconsistent rains and unique pests.

However, the hemp seed used at Stone House is of the California variety, Curtain said. Since hemp cultivation had been illegal in the state since 1937, New York hemp seeds are not available, and the genetic history that adapted the seed to New York’s climate has been lost, Curtin said.

John Gilstrap, the chief operating officer at Hudson Hemp, said during the panel there were some “natural challenges” to growing hemp in the Northeast, but they were being worked on.

Hudson Hemp has partnered with Phylos, an agricultural genomics company based in Oregon, to solve the challenge of producing a seed that “can be very successful in this type of climate, with this type of pests, weather, soil and waters,” Gilstrap said.

Ben Adams, a product specialist at Phylos, is collaborating with the American Museum of Natural History on the Cannabis Evolution Project, which seeks to “map how cannabis has evolved under human domestication,” he said.

Cannabis has been altered by humans over the years to produce a wide variety of strains, and the collaborative project seeks to breed new strains, Adams said.

Since hemp’s prohibition in 1937, “we’ve been in a stagnant line, where agricultural innovation has been made across the board and not with cannabis,” Adams said.

“That’s really the goal now, to breed cannabis that works best in each particular climate, so we can empower growers across the board,” he added.

New York Hemp

Attendees of Hudson Hemp’s event wait for their CBD-infused delicacies.

As well as hemp seeds being unused to the Hudson Valley’s climate, Hudson Hemp was being challenged by other aspects of an industry entombed for nearly a century.

Curtin called the growing and harvesting of hemp “more laborious than any other vegetable,” and Melany suggested the process would be made more efficient in coming years.

“We will certainly have to mechanize aspects further then what we’re doing,” she said. “In year one and year two, it’s kind of important to go through the laborious farm motions, purely to learn in what ways we want to [engage] this new industry.”

There was not yet any standard methods for growing hemp in the Hudson Valley, and “everyone’s experimenting,” she said.

Responding to a question about the profitability of such a labor-intensive process, Melany said the experimentation “will come at a cost in the first few years,” but Hudson Hemp would be “putting a real premium” on the product’s price.

“Our target audience is a demographic we feel can afford this product at a cost,” she said, although Hudson Hemp ultimately wants to make their CBD products more economically accessible, “but that’s not just going to happen overnight.”

“We’re actually really against the idea of hemp or CBD ending up in gas stations or whatever, because it really is worth more than that,” Melany said, adding many gas-station varieties of CBD “in terms of efficacy, are zero.”

The Future of the Hudson Valley?

The 2018 Farm Bill contains language many at the event celebrated.

“I think that it’s almost too good to be true,” Gilstrap said.

If passed in its current form, hemp cultivation would go from a pilot program to being legal across the board in all 50 states.

“Commerce will be much easier,” Gilstrap said. “We have people who won’t drive across states lines, because it’s a gray area…obviously the banking system will open up and we might be able to do business with a [federally chartered bank], because right now you would have to work with credit unions or community banks.”

New York Hemp

John Gilstrap, chief operating officer at Hudson Hemp.

The fully legal hemp crop could be a boost for failing farms in the state, Gilstrap said.

“Dairy farms are failing left and right because of price depression,” he said. “There’s a solution: maybe you look at a new crop that actually has more earning potential.”

In New York, more than 1,200 licensed dairy farms — about 19 percent of the state’s total — have shuttered between 2007 and 2017, according to the Albany Times-Union. Areas such as Delaware County have been particularly hard-hit.

A higher-dollar crop like hemp could help these farmers, Gilstrap said, but expertise needs to be gained, and processing and distribution networks need to be expanded.

Gilstrap had one final thing to say to the audience gathered at the event.

“I think you really have to understand the history of this plant from a socio- or political perspective,” he said.

He spoke about how hemp was originally harvested by slaves alongside cotton, about how the push for cannabis prohibition was backed by racism against Mexicans and blacks, about how the War on Drugs produced a hugely disproportionate number of minority arrests for marijuana possession.

“There’s a lot of pain and trauma around this crop, and I think it would be a big mistake for any of us in the business, whether cannabis growers or hemp growers, to put our product out there and just not be aware of this.”

Support TOHV to unlock more content!

patreon

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply