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VIDEO: Maine Marijuana Grower Develops Mechanical Farmhand

Murray Carpenter
For Maine Public
King Bishop and his medical marijuana crop at his farm in Morrill.

Marijuana farmers in Maine who grow plants outdoors have recently brought in their harvest, and many have been sitting around tables painstakingly trimming buds with scissors — a process that is tedious and, one Midcoast farmer says, obsolete.

On a warm fall day, King Bishop is harvesting the medical marijuana plants from his farm in Morrill. After he stacks the stems onto a table in his shop, he feeds them into a small machine.

“All of those nuggets, or what would be the buds, have all got to be removed from the stem, and so that’s what that machine is doing,” he says.

The face of the machine has a series of small holes of varied sizes. Bishop inserts the stems, one at a time, into a hole that is a tight fit for the stem, but too small for the buds to fit through.

“The big rollers inside the machine are actually pulling the main stem right out of the plant, and then the buds stay on this side of the metal plate, and the waste is on the backside,” he says.

A tote tray beneath the machine quickly fills with the buds, which are worth $3,000 per pound. Bishop, who has been growing medical marijuana since 2010, says the machine eliminates the tedious work of trimming the plants with scissors.

“Just this pile right here would have taken me hours, and we’re gonna do it in two or three minutes. With the bud tugger,” he says.

The machine is part of a mechanized line in the shop that includes a vacuum table and a Canadian-made bud trimmer. Bishop worked with a northern Maine machine shop to make his first bud tugger just four months ago. A West Coast company has been marketing a similar machine for several years, which retails for nearly $20,000.

Credit Murray Carpenter / For Maine Public
King Bishop shows off nuggets of marijuana harvested with the help of his bud tugger.

Bishop’s bud tugger sells for $3,500. He has sold eight so far, without any advertising beyond a video posted on his Facebook page.

“It’s been a game changer. I have one, I bought one, I recommend it to everybody,” says Dan Brown of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, another medical marijuana caregiver and the owner of a grower’s supply store.

Brown was among the first to buy one of the machines.

“These technologies really just turn it from a drudgery, the side of this that you would dread — sitting at the table for hours and hours and hours. Now I don’t mind it, I like it. It’s fun to just stand there and stuff them in and and pop the nuggets off,” he says.

Bishop says the bud tugger allows him to harvest his plants when they are ready, while complying with state rules limiting the hiring of marijuana farmhands.

“The state allows us to grow the cannabis, but we can’t have anyone helping us. I’m only allowed to have one employee. So it would be like trying to take down your vegetable garden, all in a matter of few days, with just one person helping you,” he says. “If the cannabis is staying outside too long, it’s like any other plant. It’ll get mold, mildew, it’ll rot. So really, it was out of necessity. I couldn’t have the extra employees, and I needed to take the garden down when it was ripe.”

Credit Murray Carpenter / Maine Public
King Bishop says his bud tugger saves marijuana farmers hours of tedious work trimming their crop.

Bishop says, in addition to the buds, his machine also produces clean stems that can be processed as hemp fiber, which will become more valuable as that industry develops in Maine.

“With any industry you expect to see innovation come, especially when it’s new and emerging,” says Heather Darby, an agronomist with the University of Vermont.

Darby has been working with Vermont farmers who are growing hemp and harvesting the flowers, or buds, which are not psychoactive. She says the industry could use some innovation, because it’s a slow process for now.

“It took roughly eight people an hour to harvest one very large plant,” she says.

Bishop hopes his machines will become popular as the marijuana and hemp industries scale up in Maine.

“Because when we start to process hundreds of acres of hemp, we’re not going to do it with a pair of scissors,” he says.

Bishop plans to produce more of the machines, as a sideline to his medical marijuana business. He is now developing a smaller countertop model, designed for growers with just a few plants to process. And he’d like to have more machines on hand in time for next year’s harvest so he can rent them out to short-handed farmers.

This story was originally published Nov. 3, 2017 at 5:45 p.m. ET.