Every five years, Congress passes a new Farm Bill, legislation that establishes national policy in agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry. The 2018 Farm Bill included “The Hemp Farming Act,” which moved hemp from the category of a controlled substance to that of an agricultural commodity, officially ending a federal prohibition on hemp farming and opening the door to new opportunities for Hudson Valley farmers.
Hemp plants contain cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD. When resin from the stalks of hemp plants is extracted and combined with a carrier oil such as coconut or olive oil, the resulting CBD oil can be used as a natural form of pain relief. Scientific studies and anecdotal evidence alike have shown that CBD oil is helpful in reducing the symptoms of a wide variety of ailments, from lowering high blood pressure to providing relief for the side-effects associated with cancer treatments. And because CBD is not addictive and is non-psychoactive – hemp plants contain no THC, the substance in marijuana plants that gets a person high – the cannabinoids in hemp can create changes in the body that contribute to good health and wellness without altering a person’s perceptions or judgment.
With legal obstacles to growing the plant removed, local farmers are beginning to seed their growing fields with hemp. But while the rising demand for CBD oil would seem to make hemp-growing a no-brainer in terms of being a profitable endeavor, farmer Gail Hepworth is concerned that if the cultivation of hemp locally isn’t handled in a way that benefits regional farmers, they could find themselves on the losing end of what’s sure to be a lucrative market.
The current agricultural reality, she says, is that the farmer is at the bottom of the list when it comes to who is making money from the crops they grow. “We grow the food, but everybody else along the value chain, before it gets to the consumer, is making the money. And it’s the farmers who take all the risks.” The challenges include a number of things, Hepworth explains, from dealing with weather conditions like frost to suffering the whims of the marketplace. For example, a farmer may devote ten years or more to bringing a particular variety of apple to fruition only to find the buyers at that time following the trend for another variety.
Gail and her sister, Amy Hepworth, own and operate Hepworth Farms in Milton, a 550-acre, seventh-generation family farm founded in 1818. Along with more than 300 varieties of vegetables, they’re now growing hemp. And earlier this year, the sisters co-founded “Hempire State Growers Hudson Valley” in order to protect the interests of local farmers growing hemp.
“We’re a tight-knit group of farmers working in a cooperative model,” says Gail. “We’re working together to be a part of this economic opportunity. But if this isn’t done with the farmers’ interests at heart, this crop could be harmful to farmers or at best, be like any other agricultural commodity which has not served farmers well.”
With more than 30 local farmers currently involved in the group and additional farmers expected to join by next year, the members of Hempire State Growers plan to use their combined farming knowledge and experience to bolster one another’s efforts in growing hemp as a supplement to what they’re already producing on their individual farms. The group’s objective is to develop a pure, organically-grown hemp plant with characteristic flavors and qualities specific to Hudson Valley growing conditions, which will make the group the “go-to” entity for CBD production and processing in the region.
The membership of Hempire State Growers includes some well-known farms in the area along with smaller enterprises. Along with Hepworth Farms in Milton are Black Creek Farm in Highland, Cavallaro Farms in Goshen, Dagele Brothers Produce in Orange County, Davenport Farms in Stone Ridge, Full Moon Farm in Gardiner, Hepworth Farms in Milton, Leo Boice & Sons in Kingston and Taliaferro Farms in New Paltz. A few of the farms are offering public tours of their hemp fields, among them Dubois Farms in Highland, Lawrence Farms & Orchards in Newburgh, Minard Family Farms of Clintondale and Wright Farms in Gardiner.
The farmers are focusing on producing organic hemp with maximized cannabidiol (CBD) concentration, and will use state-of-the-art extraction and processing technologies to bring the natural remedy to market. Their collaborative approach provides added risk protection and reduced production costs through the sharing of knowledge, equipment, processing facilities and agricultural workers.
“How it all works will have to be figured out as we go,” Gail says. “But we have a model, and the model will be available for others to use. We have to refine it, but we have a seasoned finance person on our team, with 35 years of corporate experience, helping us to build the financial model and the true spirit of a cooperative.”
Growing hemp will be more than just another crop for local farmers, Hepworth says; it will literally be essential to the very survival of local farms. “It needs to happen. But for it to happen, our model is a bottom-up model. That means that we’re going to capture the wealth creation, because we’re going to be growing it, and we’re also going to be processing it and selling it. It’s not just the growing of the crop we’re after, it’s the wealth creation that happens after the crop is harvested that this cooperative is set up to capture.”
The group has already turned down millions of dollars from investors “in order to retain our sovereignty,” she adds. “We could certainly use the money, because we have to build the infrastructure, but we walked away from those investors because they want to own us. And the difference in our model is, we are not owned by anyone. It’s better for the farmers, and it’s better for the community, because when farmers do well, communities do well, too. We have an intention to turn the Hudson Valley into a CBD region in concert with and in complement to what is already established here by the food-to-table movement and the agri-tourism business.”
And because the profits from growing hemp will allow the farmers to continue growing their food crops, Hempire State Growers is ultimately about that, Hepworth says. “The real thing is feeding people; that’s actually our inspiration.”
For more information about Hempire State Growers Hudson Valley, visit https://hempirestategrowers.com/.