COBLESKILL — When herbal farmer Kate Miller decided to get into the hemp business, she bet nearly her whole farm on it.
Miller said she knows first hand the potential medicinal benefits of hemp, defined by the federal government as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, known simply as THC.
“I had surgery on my shoulder. I really did not want to use opioids for pain management after my surgery, and so I used just CBD, and it worked really well. That’s the only thing that I could use to get to sleep, stay asleep,” she said. “I got mine from a company in Cortland that grows certified organic hemp, called the Head and the Heal. We hope they will be processing our hemp for us later this year.”
Hemp, once a major crop in the Northeast before the federal government made it effectively illegal to grow and sell products derived from it, is officially back in production in upstate New York.
Miller, a Sharon Springs resident, obtained her license to grow hemp last December in anticipation of the federal legalization of hemp farming under the 2018 Farm Bill, which came into affect this year. She decided to plant nearly all of her savings into 5,000 hemp seeds, costing about $5,000. She’s growing them on 2.5 acres of land and hoping to sell them into the lucrative CBD oil processing market.
“I know a lot of herbalists and a lot of doctors who are really amazed by the results they are seeing in terms of people that they work with using hemp as medicine, CBD oil in particular,” she said.
Her farm also had to purchase a raised bed and drip line irrigation supplies [$6,000]; it will also incur drying costs [$7,000 to $10,000] and then processing costs [$75,000 for the entire crop]
Miller said banks won’t lend her money for the operation, due to its association with cannabis, so she’ll only be processing a small part of her crop and then selling the rest to a larger company.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, said he’d like to help Miller with that problem.
“What we’re asking the Federal Reserve and the [Officer of the Comptroller of the Currency] to do is come up with guidelines. Once they set up guidelines, the banks want to do this. They know it’s profitable, but they’re afraid, but once the government sets up guidelines they’ll do it,” he said.
Schumer visited the 5-acre, 7,500 plant hemp growing operation at SUNY Cobleskill Monday. He said legalizing hemp was one of the few truly bi-partisan issues last year in the U.S. Senate, with both he and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, both supporting its inclusion in the farm bill.
“Hemp is so versatile. People don’t know this, hemp can be used for cosmetics, construction material, cars, the inside doors, for cushioning. It has amazing uses,” Schumer said.
Some aspects of how to best grow it, however, remain a mystery, because it was effectively outlawed for so long.
Lesley Judd, a SUNY Cobleskill agricultural scientist, said the hemp field of research is exciting in part because so many things still need to be determined about how best to grow it. She said one thing that is known is the plants reproduce sexually, with both male and female hemp plants, and the seeds from the unpollinated female plants produce the most CBD oil, so its important to keep the male plants out of the production area. Mother nature makes that tricky though.
“There are hermaphrodites though, we have to watch out for that, because that does occur in nature,” she said.
Schumer praised the agricultural research being done at SUNY Cobleskill and pledged his support to helping hemp growers access markets.
“The other thing we need to do is the credit card companies, they’re also afraid of anything with cannabis, so we have to make sure that is ironed out, and even selling them online,” he said.
Judd said Cobleskill is working on ironing out any agricultural problems with hemp production, including how far apart the plants should grow and what predators may be an issue. She said that woodchucks and a few bugs like to eat hemp.
“We had some woodchucks eating them for awhile, but it ended up not being a problem because they stopped for some reason when the plants grew bigger,” she said.
Schumer said he’s hopeful New York grown hemp will be able to foster the creation of other businesses that can use the versatile plant, which can also be turned into paper.
Schumer said he’s also fighting against cuts to research funding into bee colony collapse. He called it an “under the radar” decision by the Trump administration through its control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The USDA has clipped the wings of a critical data-collection program on honey bee colonies, impacting jobs and productivity in places like Albany. … [it] really stings,” he said. “We need honey bees, not for hemp, but for a lot of other crops, and they’re dying out and we don’t know why, but one way to find out is by surveying it, and they cut the money for it.”
Schumer said he sees three possible reasons for why Trump might be de-funding bee surveying: a desire to cut spending, fear that bee colony collapse might be tied to climate change and the possibility that pesticide companies might be influencing Trump.
“This only cost less than $10 million, and this is of huge importance to figuring out why the honey bees are dying,” he said.