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Exclusive: Hemp farmer Katherine Desmond on Vermont’s pilot program

Sep 18, 2018

The Hemp Bill which is attached to this year’s farm bill looks like it has a good chance of becoming law. The measure would remove hemp from the Controlled Substance Act and allow for its cultivation throughout the United States. It would also make hemp farmers eligible for federally subsidized crop insurance.

To gain a little insight into hemp farming, we spoke with Katherine Desmond, a hemp farmer in Vermont who has been growing the crop for the past couple years, about her experiences with that state’s pilot program.

Katherine considers herself a lifelong organic farmer and landscape designer, who has a background in the field of Cannabis Science and Medicine. According to her bio, she’s the CFO of one of the largest Hemp companies in the northeastern United States. She also does some consulting for a Hemp Oil wholesaler in the U.S. and Europe and works as a Hemp Industry Lobbyist.

Katherine Desmond

You and I spoke a while back, and you were talking about growing hemp. What was it like trying to gain whatever permissions you need to grow hemp, and to obtain seed, and things like that? Who did you have to go through to obtain permission to grow hemp in Vermont?

Well, I did harvest a crop last autumn, and I did plant many crops this year. We’ve got several different strains that we’re growing, and some of them are anywhere from grain hemp that we're growing for the seed that’s pressed into oil, to hemp that we’re growing to stabilize genetics. So, we're growing for seed, and we have some crops that we are growing to extract CBD from. In the state of Vermont, growing hemp is as simple as paying $25 and filling out an application with the Department of Agriculture, and you have a license from the state to grow hemp, very simple. 

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If I recall, you were having some problem finding seed. Is that still a problem or is that no longer a problem?

So, what we did was, we reached out to some of the other people in the state that were growing hemp that had other resources, and purchased seed from them. And, through some of our research connections that we have right now, we were given some seed with some research partners to breed so that we can work with a few other universities around the world and stabilize these proprietary genetics so that we could get AOSCA certified and sell them internationally.

I read articles all the time, literally every single day, that say that CBD is produced from industrial hemp, which is certainly not the case. Industrial hemp is great for making textiles and seeds, but it's not great for making CBD. Is that correct?

Well, industrial hemp does have CBD, but in lower amounts. So you can extract CBD from industrial hemp, it just takes a lot of biomass to get a small amount out of it. Over the past few years, people have been working towards the science of creating strains of hemp that are higher in CBD and aren't grown for anything but that purpose. They don't have the long, tall fiber stalks and they're grown strictly as a female plant, so there are no seeds, so it makes it easier to process. It's very similar to marijuana in its look and its shape, in its harvesting, in its trimming, and in its extraction.

Industrial hemp is grown in massive numbers per square meter — 20, 30 plants. And I assume that the type of hemp that you're growing, the CBD-rich hemp is grown, like you said, much more like marijuana, in plots or pots. Is that correct? 

Right. Yeah, these are grown outdoors, under plastic, with irrigation lines, using specific attachments – tractor attachments – that lay out these raised beds of soil that have plastic on them and the drip lines underneath so that you space your plants every few feet, and they are automatically mulched, and automatically watered, and you can put your nutrients right in the water so that they're fed as well. To plant hemp this way is expensive but, once you get it in the ground this way, it’s much easier to manage.

So only female plants are used, of course. Are you growing them from feminized seeds, or are you culling males, or are you using clones?

We, this year, have grown from feminized seed and non-feminized seed. Again, a lot of what we do is research, so we have to try a little bit of everything. So we've tried everything from direct seeding to starting in the greenhouse. This year we have not planted any clones, but we’re in the process of building some greenhouses for clones for next year. So, yes, we did cull a lot of males.

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Do you actually sell dry flower from CBD-rich hemp? Do people actually smoke it or are you just making CBD oil out of it?

Yes, people do smoke dried flower. Pre-rolled CBD joints are very popular. We don't personally sell them, but we have sold flower to other companies that make pre-rolls, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. People love smoking hemp.

To back up for a second, you mentioned something about having to do research. So, the license that you have for growing hemp requires you actually to be growing it for research?

Well, part of the hemp pilot program in certain states requires that you be part of some sort of program that is affiliated with academic institutions. So, some of the crops we’re growing are for partners of ours that are doing research with universities in other continents, and some of the research we’re doing is with some of our members who are PhDs at the University of Vermont, studying ecological and economic models of the hemp industry. So, things like phytoremediation and things like that.

I assume you follow, very closely, things like the hemp bill. What are your thoughts on the politics of hemp on a federal level?

I’d like to see hemp de-scheduled instead of re-scheduled. There is a lot of politics in regards to hemp because a lot of the intellectual property, the genetic intellectual property, the patents, and the use of some of those things that are made from hemp, mainly CBD, are owned by pharmaceutical companies. So there’s a lot of opportunities for CBD for people, but I’d like to see it be used more in medicine.

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I’d like to see it become something where you could go to CVS and get Advil with CBD in it or Tylenol with CBD in it. And eventually with THC. I'd like to see the bill reflect the research that we're going to need to do that, which it looks like they are starting to lean that way where they want to be able to create an environment for people to research all the medicinal ways you can use hemp. Until we have that, we won't really know where it's going to land. So, I'm all for the bill doing as much as it can to get it out of Schedule I.

Is it perfect? No, but it is a good place to start. But I would like to see them remove the part that says felons can't work in the hemp industry. I don’t agree with that. I think it's a great opportunity for people who, at one time, thought they had to make a living in the black market of cannabis, who still enjoy working with cannabis, to find ways to make a legal living.

Anything else of issue that you think we should discuss?

I think we get a little bit of a gold rush going on where a lot of people are growing hemp, and I'm just curious to see what's going to happen with all of this hemp in the state of Vermont, in regards to them finding what they need for harvesting, and drying, and storage, and processing, and sales avenues.

You know, there's still a big need for all of that infrastructure, in this industry, in New England. So I'm just curious to see where it's going to land. And I’m also thinking that there's probably going to be a glut of CBD hemp this year, and I’m wondering what that's going to do for the prices, the market. So, I'm curious, I don't have any predictions, but I am watching it closely.

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