Marlborough farmers Amy and Gail Hepworth have always worked for the greater good of the farming community. In January they launched a co-op called Hempire State Growers at their Rte. 9W offices and have reached out to area farmers, urging them to consider growing hemp. Many have responded in a positive way and have planted different amounts for the first time this season.
By definition, hemp is a strain of the Cannabis Sativa plant species that is grown specifically for industrial uses. It was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber 10,000 years ago and it can be refined into a variety of commercial items including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, bio-fuel, food, and animal feed.” The Hepworths are quick to point out that although the plant looks and smells like marijuana, the female CBD hemp plants that they are growing do not contain Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the key ingredient that produces the traditional feeling of euphoria when smoked. Gail stressed that you can not “get high” by smoking these plants.
After a nearly a 60 year hiatus, Hemp is finding its way back into the marketplace, mostly in a liquid form of cannabidiol oil [CBD] that is extracted from the plant and is being used for medical purposes, such as easing the pain of arthritis, countering anxiety and helping to get to sleep.
Harvest will start about September 15 and run through October 5. The plants are then dried using various techniques that result in a biomass, which is dried CBD hemp. The oil can be extracted by several methods, using CO2, ethanol or water vaporization technologies, resulting in varying percentages of the oil. Gail said they will use a small extractor this year to, “allow us to do our trials so that we can prepare for FDA regulations and labeling and work our production to meet standards.”
Amy welcomes the return of hemp.
“The plant that was taken away from the people is now back for the people,” she said. “The mission statement of the cooperative is to try to have farmers be the ones who benefit from the wealth creation that comes from a plant.”
Amy said their co-op model is quite unique, pointing out that their farmers are able to, “maintain their own sovereignty through the supply chain then they can extract the wealth creation of this new economy as opposed to just selling out to the people at the other end.” She said the risks are spread out and profits are ultimately shared more equitably.
“We just want everyone to come up together,” she said.
Gail said they have not “succumbed” to all of the money that is presently flooding the marketplace.
“We have been able to resist investors owning us... Our business is not owned by anyone but the farmer’s interests,” she said. “The farmer participates in the wealth creation with profit sharing.”
Amy said being a part of the co-op requires the desire, not only to get along with the members, but to have the ability to, “trust one another, do the right thing, continue to communicate and learn. The knowledge-shared base co-operative is a unique opportunity to work together for the common good.”
Gail said to ensure the co-operative’s success they have added several people to their team: Rob Stuple and Diane Feilen are assisting in Sales & Marketing; Chris Butler is in charge of meeting the FDA requirements, Technology and Product Development and Florence Rondeau Chang is in charge of Finance and Operations.
“In addition to farmers to pull off the co-operative, we need to have savvy people in finance, marketing, operations and manufacturing,” she said.
After Dave DuBois, of DuBois Farms in Highland, heard Amy Hepworth’s pitch for hemp he was sold. “She came right over, we talked about it and I said, sounds great, let’s do it.” He started this year by planting a little more than an acre of hemp, saying he has faith in the co-op’s vision.
DuBois said the co-operative provides members with more control over their crop and of their financial return, “and hopefully keep out the big corporations and the big money and keep it farmer-owned.”
DuBois planted all his hemp in rows of raised beds with a slight slope to avoid water from staying too long on the roots. He waters and fertilizes his plants weekly, doing it organically to avoid any harmful chemicals from being drawn up into the plant.
Jason Minard, of Minard Farms in Clintondale, is also an enthusiastic supporter and grower of hemp, saying, “this is a good opportunity for the growers.” He planted 12 acres this year and said the future looks bright for this crop due to a recent Hemp Bill that will be going before Governor Cuomo for his signature.
“It will require that any CBD made in New York State has got to come from New York Farms,” he said. “They have to use our hemp and that’s a good thing for farmers in general.”
Minard said his family has been farming in the Hudson Valley since 1906 and feels he is in a good position to take advantage of this new opportunity. He said profits can vary.
“It can go anywhere from $36,000 per acre net profit upwards of $120,000 per acre and that is unheard of in farming,” he said. “We’re growing for CBD use and we’ve used specific genetics that we’ve sourced that we feel will grow good here in the Hudson Valley.”
Minard pointed out that “big pharma” is against this because less prescriptions and opioids are being sold.
Mike Wright, of Wright’s Farm in Gardner, said he planted about 5 acres of hemp this year. He said the plants can top five feet in height.
“They’re not quite there yet but they’re on their way,” he said.
Wright said the co-op helps everyone, “when you’re collectively trying to do one thing together.”
Barth Davenport, of Davenport Farms in Stone Ridge, has planted about 8 acres of hemp for the first time this year. He said the co-op was the deciding factor for him to move forward with this new crop, “I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”
Rick Lawrence, of Lawrence Farm Orchards in Newburgh, planted 7 acres with four varieties of hemp, He said Amy Hepworth encouraged him to use some vacant acreage that he has not used for about 20 years.
“I’m not interested in marijuana but the hemp seemed to be a better fit for me,” he said. “We’re growing it organically with no chemicals.”
Lawrence said there is a lot to learn about this crop, “but we seem to be on the beginning of the curve. I’m looking forward to the first harvest and the plant grows pretty well here.”
Lawrence favors the idea of a co-op structure.
“There’s a lot of knowledge and there’s safety in numbers...If we can collectively bargain with everything, it’s hopefully going to turn out better,” he said.
Erik Shellenberg, of Black Creek Farm in Highland, planted just an acre of hemp this year, in part because he has low land that can retain water a bit too long in a rainy year. But he is enthusiastic about this new crop.
“Obviously it has a pretty exciting potential, economically for the industry,” he said. “Like many people, the numbers seemed a little too exciting to pass up.”
Shellenberg said having the co-op gives area farmers a fighting chance against the mega-farms in the mid-west.
“The pooling together of everybody’s share allows us to access markets that none of us would be able to access individually,” he said. “As a small farmer it’s difficult for me to be all things at once and to have people who are taking care of the marketing, that’s huge in and of itself.”