ALBURGH, Vt. -A combine carefully culls seeds from a first-of-a-kind crop at the Borderview Research Farm. The crop is industrial hemp. It’s a distant cousin to marijuana which is why federal law prohibits growing the plant. Hemp was commonplace on U.S. farms 100 years ago, famous for its uses as food and fiber.
“Linseed oil is probably something people recognize the name of that and of course that came from hemp, as well,” said Heather Darby, an agronomist at the University of Vermont.
In other countries in Europe and Canada, industrial hemp is a huge cash crop.
A couple of years ago, Vermont and a few other states decided to legalize the production of industrial hemp. And now, the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill allows academic institutions to study its growth and cultivation. This spring, the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program started their research project. UVM researchers bought their seed from a company in Canada after filling out reams of paperwork and agreeing to not sell the seeds it produced.
“The season was great for the hemp,” Darby said. “We believe the yields that we are getting are in line with what hemp-producing states or countries get, so we think it was a good season so far.”
But while the crop took off in the fields on this farm, and is being grown on several private farms throughout the state, Darby says a thriving industrial hemp industry may not be in Vermont’s future for a very basic reason.
“The seed is a huge challenge,” she said. “We have lots of people come to visit the research yard and their first question is, ‘Oh, we would like to do this. Where do we get seed?’ That’s why I think it is really important for states like Vermont develop a seed industry quickly. Because there is no way for us to make this a viable crop if we don’t have seed.”
Farmers can’t import seeds because it is still illegal on the federal level to grow industrial hemp. And they can’t sell the seeds across state lines.
Tim Schmalz of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture says the agency wants to help growers and is in touch with other states that grow industrial hemp, like Kentucky, to learn more about how to approach setting up a seed certification registry. But it is a complicated process.
Meanwhile, research will continue on Borderview Farm on the best ways to grow, harvest and conduct research on industrial hemp.