When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ceremoniously used a hemp pen to sign the Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill in December, he promised an unencumbered path for the exploration of a new frontier.
Touting the economical merits of industrial hemp, McConnell said the legislation opened a new door for struggling farmers in his home state of Kentucky and around the country. And when signed into law last month, the Farm Bill made the growing, transport and production of industrial hemp legal, effectively removing it from the federally controlled substances list.
“I felt all along it was unfairly criminalized. It is the strongest natural fiber,” said Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff. “As far as permits and other regulations, there really shouldn’t be any bureaucracy. It should be the same as hay or soybeans.”
Haff said, when he drives around the town of Hartford, he looks at the potential of unfarmed meadows.
“A lot of these fields could be rejuvenated,” he said. “It would help struggling farmers to survive.”
In Washington County, at least a few dairy farmers are interested in growing industrial hemp, he said.
There is widespread enthusiasm for the bill’s passage and the possibilities for what has been projected to become a $1 billion industry. But a host of planting, growing, harvesting and security considerations, along with major law enforcement information gaps about what is now legal, pose complex challenges for new growers and processors.
“Not everyone is informed locally and statewide,” said Sarah Murphy, co-owner of Old Homestead Hemp in Hebron, referring to the gaps in understanding the new law. “It’s so new and this is the in-between time … We are riding on the edge until everyone catches up.”
Hemp vs. marijuana
Earlier this month, an industrial hemp transport team of two truckers and two security officials from Patriot Shield, a Colorado marijuana security company, was driving through the 3-1/2 square mile town of Pawhusky, Oklahoma, at about 3 a.m. Transporting 20,500 pounds of legally certified industrial hemp from a farm in Kentucky to a manufacturer in Colorado, the security team plotted a route that included a drive through Pawhusky.
Some states do not allow the transport of hemp through their state, said Tyler Dickinson, a co-owner of Patriot Shield, during a Wednesday night interview.
“We do our due diligence and plan the travel logistics,” Dickinson said, adding that they got the go-ahead from Oklahoma. “We were told if we drove through Texas or Kansas, we would get arrested.”
Here’s how Dickinson explained what happened:
After driving through a red light in Pawhusky, the transport team got pulled over by local police.
“He did drive through the red light, I’m not sure why. The driver told the officer they were moving industrial hemp,” Dickinson said. “My two business partners were arrested. We provided all sorts of paperwork, purchase order, contract, bills of lading, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture audit of the 60 boxes.”
According to Dickinson, local police said the paperwork looked suspicious and police were quickly joined by state and federal officials after a simple roadside test of the hemp tested positive for marijuana, still a Schedule I narcotic like heroin or methamphetamine.
While researchers and growers can often spot the differences, most people do not know the difference. It all looks and smells like marijuana.
Additionally, if police test the hemp with a simple roadside assessment, it will test positive as marijuana, because hemp has a small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The difference between being legal or illegal is in the amount of THC present in the plant.
Legal hemp must be 0.3 percent or less THC. Over this threshold, it is classified as marijuana.
In Pawhusky, the four men were arrested, jailed and charged with felony aggravated trafficking by the local district attorney, who first set bail at $1.5 million each.
“Our attorney was able to get it reduced to $40,000 each,” Dickinson said, adding that because of the federal government shutdown, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency will not test the truckload of industrial hemp. And so, the men wait for a March hearing. And if the hemp potency is not properly tested and they are convicted of the charges, they face a potential 15 years behind bars and a $500,000 fine.
According to Pawhusky Assistant District Attorney Michelle Keely, the load of hemp tested positive for THC three times, citing one microscopic test that she said delineates between hemp and marijuana, despite evidence to the contrary.
“It’s not a load of hemp, it’s marijuana,” Keely said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
When asked if the alleged hemp was potency-tested in the lab to determine whether it met federal guidelines for THC content, she said it had not been tested yet. If potency testing indicates the hemp is legal, Keely said, the charges will be dropped.
But for now, the nearly $500,000 load is rotting in Pawhusky while law enforcement officials stumble over whether it’s legal hemp or its illicit counterpart.
Murphy and her sister, Iris Rogers, although not arrested, had a similar run-in with testing after two local men chopped down and stole 12 of their plants still growing in their field in Hebron this past growing season. In response to the call about the missing plants, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office tested the crop and, as in the Pawhusky incident, a roadside test came up positive for marijuana.
“That gave us a good opportunity to talk to the sheriff at length,” Murphy said. “He was not aware of the permitting.”
Hemp theft is not uncommon, said Dickinson, adding that “some have held people at gunpoint.”
Local men were arrested in the theft of plants from the Hebron farm and charged with felony grand larceny, Murphy said.
A season of growing
Last year, the sisters and Old Homestead Hemp received a state Department of Agriculture and Markets research permit to legally grow industrial hemp for the eventual manufacture of cannabidiol, better known as CBD oil, on their family’s farm.
There are currently 154 state-approved research partners with permits to grow hemp, with three in Washington County and three in Saratoga County. There are 29 approved hemp processors and 20 combined grower/processors statewide, with one in Saratoga County.
Permit applications for CBD-related crops are currently closed, but according to Chris Logue, director of the Agriculture and Markets Division of Plant Industry, New York is continuing to seek reliable research partners to conduct studies in food and fiber.
Murphy and Rogers decided to give it a go this past year with the help of a consultant, The Castetter Sustainability Group Inc., from Binghamton.
“They are farm-driven. They are farm-first,” said Rogers. “Nobody gets paid unless the crop is good. They are honest and supportive, and they are always there.”
Despite having few financial resources, the sisters found innovative ways to make the new crop work.
In their first year they planted 5,000 cherry blossom wine hemp seeds which were mostly cannabis sativa. This year, they are considering a hybrid with a small amount of cannabis indica to help with an earlier harvest.
Some of the biggest challenges they faced were pests, weeds, a good drying space, equipment, harvesting, shucking and time.
“It is so labor-intensive,” Murphy said about the hand-shucking process. “We are still brainstorming about what is the most efficient.”
This year they are switching to raised beds with plastic or mulch to control the weeds and a better drying space to control the mold.
At every turn, their innovative ideas kept them going, such as the time they needed to buy a water wheel transplanter.
“We started a Go Fund Me campaign to foster a hemp plant” said Murphy. Both sisters laughed, recounting the names donors gave their plant: “Audrey Hempburn, Dorothy Hempill.”
And now, with their first successful crop harvested and 2,200 pounds sold to a large manufacturer, the sisters said they no longer need an investor. They have enough capital to keep growing and learning.
“Washington County is a great place to do this. The soil around here is good, pretty rich in nutrients,” Rogers said.
Murphy said they’re excited about this year’s season.
“We want to encourage people who don’t have all the pieces,” they said. “On a low-scale project, it still grew, it still got harvested. Just get through your first year.”
Even though there is international demand for woven textile hemp, no way to process it for spinning has been developed in the U.S., said Battenkill Fibers owner Mary Jeanne Packer during a visit to the Greenwich textile company.
“The hemp grown in Washington County is not suitable for woven textiles, it is being grown for seed and oil,” she said. “The stalk can be used in non-woven fabrics and insulation.”
Still, Packer said, her company is spinning hemp blended with wool.
“Our machines are designed to spin wool, not hemp. But we can spin up to a 75 percent hemp-wool blend,” she said.
That blended hemp is being sent all over the world and to designers in New York City.
Packer demonstrated where the processed hemp she currently buys from Europe joins the spinning process and gets blended with wool for local farms.
There are processors in the U.S. that can decorticate the hemp, breaking down the tough stalks and creating a rough, “Brillo-like” fabric that can be used in insulation or non-woven textiles like felt.
For hemp-woven textiles, there remains one unsolved piece: the processing that creates the softer strands that mills can blend with wool.
“We would love to be able to buy one of those machines,” Packer said. “There is nothing like that on a commercial scale in the U.S.; they are in the Ukraine, Belarus … To get a big machine to take hemp from the farmer’s field, the machine runs at a minimum from $400,000 to $500,000.”
Packer said she looked into buying a processing machine from a mill that was closing in Portugal, but the shipping was too expensive.
For now, Packer is buying hemp that is processed overseas into soft, long strands that her mill then prepares into a roving blend.
Currently working with a SUNY Morrisville researcher, Packer plans to travel to Poland with a bale of research textile hemp that will be processed there.
“I hope to go when it is processed to learn how to do it,” she said. “Hemp is very durable and it stabilizes the wool.”
As for growing hemp locally?
“Washington County is uniquely situated with our proximity to fashion in NYC,” Packer said. “Every week we are shipping yarn to a designer in the city.”