Farmers, Researchers Look To Grow Maine's Fledgling Hemp Industry

Oct 9, 2019

This year, there’s a new crop being harvested in Maine alongside apples, pumpkins and corn — hemp.

Recent changes in how the federal government regulates the once-forbidden plant, coupled with the rising popularity of medicinal products made from its flowers, have fueled a boom in hemp farming. Today’s growers and researchers are working to find the way forward for a crop that was all but lost to decades of prohibition.

Ed Charbonneau is standing in a field of shaggy, green plants topped with sticky flowers that sparkle with a coat of tiny crystals. The air around this field in Whitefield is heavy with the musky odor of mature hemp buds. Charbonneau is cutting branches and even digging a plant up by the roots to take back with him to his home state of Florida.

“My wife has chronic arthritis. Pretty debilitating — they’re not finding cures for arthritis very quickly. And when you’re a senior, you don’t have that much time. Time on Earth is limited. This is sort of the last resort,” he says.

Ed Charbonneau picks hemp in Whitefield.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

As a senior and a veteran, Charbonneau represents a key demographic that experts say is fueling a new demand for expanded hemp acreage.

According to state regulators, potentially 90 percent or more of all the hemp being grown across the country are varieties rich in cannabinoids, or CBD. That’s a complement of nonpsychoactive substances present in the Cannabis sativa plant, and prized for purported medicinal benefits in treating various ailments.

Sheepscot General Store and Farm in Whitefield is one of 172 hemp growing operations in Maine that have emerged since the passage of the initial pilot provisions of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill. The number of growers has doubled over last year, as further expansions took effect in the 2018 farm bill, and according to state regulators, land in production has grown from about a third of an acre in 2014 to more than 1,700 acres today.

Farm owners Ben and Taryn Marcus are first-time growers. With very little in the way of a hemp marketing or processing structure, they’re trying to see if a pick-your-own model, which they use each spring with their strawberries, will work. With only a tiny handful of U-pick hemp operations in the world, the Marcuses are essentially testing something new, in a new industry.

Hemp actually isn’t a new crop. Generations of Americans grew the plant on a large scale dating back to colonial times. But Ben Marcus says much of the knowledge of what to grow, where to grow and how to grow it has been lost.

“A big downside for the hemp world is that we’ve lost a lot of genetics in the last 80 years. There weren’t any universities that were even allowed to maintain the seed banks, so we’ve lost all these genetics and now there are these geneticists out there that are collecting specimens out of the ditches in Nebraska and Iowa,” he says.

One of the researchers rushing to catch up is John Jemison, an agronomist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“First of all, it’s very rare in an agronomic person’s career that you get a brand new crop that all of a sudden comes on the scene. That in itself is fascinating right? It’s an unusual plant. We know some of what we need to know to grow it,” he says.

But not enough, Jemison says, to be able to advise the industry with best practices on soil, pest management, ideal spacing of plants, types of strains to use, when to harvest and how to lower costs. Other challenges include ensuring proper plant gender — all the plants for a CBD crop must be female, and any gender confusion or inappropriate pollination could put a whole crop at risk. Even indoor versus outdoor growing is untested.

Currently, the general guidelines used for cannabis crops have been designed for other species, such as hops and canola.

“I wish we could have put the horse before the cart and done all the legwork — really known what it was supposed to do — and then been able to teach farmers, ‘This is what you need to do to grow it,’” Jemison says.

And there’s still some general confusion over what hemp even is in the first place.

Hemp at Ben and Taryn Marcus' Whitefield farm.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

“Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis sativa — the same species,” says state horticulturalist Gary Fish, who oversees the state’s hemp program.

Fish says he still finds that many town councils, police departments and the general public don’t understand the difference, and that can have a chilling effect on a fledgling industry. While the same species of plant, hemp is a different strain, bred for its other attributes such as fiber for rope, or for its CBD, and contains almost none of the THC present in its psychoactive sibling, marijuana.

“I usually explain it in terms of dogs. Dogs are all the same species, but you’ve got tiny little wiener dogs and you’ve got Great Danes.”

Whether hemp is the wiener dog or the Great Dane, it’s also not completely clear who is in charge of the kennel. Currently, hemp growing is not legal in some states that have no state hemp oversight, while in Maine regulators are awaiting guidance and rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on growing hemp as a crop. After that, the state plans to conduct a public comment period — likely this winter — as it reassess its own hemp program.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is busy writing its own rules and guidelines on products made from hemp, such as CBD tinctures, vapes and topicals.

Back in Whitefield, the state’s first ever U-pick hemp harvest has drawn scores of people, many of them from out of state. Ben and Taryn Marcus are hopeful, but they say that many challenges remain.

“We have not broken even yet. I think there’s a lot of assumption that, ‘Oh, they’re going to get rich!’ But we have a lot of overhead into this crop. I don’t think doing the U-pick alone is going to cover our overhead. We’re going to have to do some wholesale. We’re not sure yet if it is actually going to be lucrative or if it’s even something we’re going to do next year. We’re kind of wait and see at this point,” Taryn says.

“The potential of this plant I think we’re just scratching the surface, and I don’t understand why CBD is what brought it back to the legal realm. I hope that the other industries come on board and we can redevelop that infrastructure in this country. I think it could be great for the economy, I think it could be great for the environment, and I think it could be really great for farmers,” Ben says.

Originally published 3:54 p.m. Oct. 8, 2019