Leaf peepers who flock to Vermont this fall to view the foliage will also see a new type of plant dotting the landscape, including 40 highly visible acres along Route 100 between Stowe and Morristown.
On a Stowe farm that spans from the state highway to Stagecoach Road, delicate hemp plants are poking their way out of long rows covered in black plastic to keep the weeds at bay.
Stowe farmer Paul Percy has been planting corn there long enough that, for longtime commuters, it’s been somewhat jarring to see something other than corn sprouting up in the past week or two.
Hemp is a variety of cannabis that, unlike its sister plant known as marijuana, contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in pot that gets you high. There is a booming market for another cannabis compound, CBD, that won’t get you high.
Percy’s stepson, Mark Hovey, is running the hemp-growing and processing operation, known as HP Farms. His full-time crew includes himself; his son Kyle, armed with a master’s degree in biology; Bob Sabolefski, a maple syrup producer from Stowe; and Patrick Walsh, an experienced hemp farmer who is the main grower.
According to Hovey, he started thinking small, maybe 5 acres.
“But, if you’re gonna do 5, you might as well do 10, right?” he said. “And if you’re gonna do 10, you might as well just go and do 40.”
Later that afternoon, he and his small crew started planting several more acres on the neighboring Goodson farm.
Pat and Kyle marveled at how well the Percys and Goodsons had maintained their fields. Not a rock to be found in the tilled earth.
Percy, naturally, is the wise overseer, in and out in his pickup truck all day, partly out of curiosity, and partly to offer some advice.
“Some people tell me, ‘I can’t believe you’re growing that, Paul,’ because I ain’t a marijuana grower,” he said. “But there is a lot of uses for it, I guess.”
Fresh back in Vermont after 20 years in corporate America, Hovey, 53, is enthusiastic and has a sense of numbers. He and Percy went into the season with a business plan that satisfied the longtime dairy man enough to let his stepson take over one of his cornfields.
Hovey was mum about how much he expects to bring in with this year’s harvest, but it’s clear he expects this to be a lucrative crop.
“Put it this way, we’ll get net gross profits extending beyond what you put into it,” he said.
HP Farms has between 70,000 and 80,000 plants, more than half of them started from seed in Percy’s greenhouses. They purchased another 30,000-plus starter plants from Colorado.
The crops are still in their early stages, but already the locally started plants are twice as big as the ones from Colorado. He said shipping them shocks the plants, and they take a little longer to get comfortable in the Vermont soil.
‘Whole new crop’
About 5 miles to the north, on Fitzgerald Road in Morristown, Dwayne Lanphear and his business partner Chris Padula are growing 70 acres of hemp, part of an outfit they call Green Top Farm.
This is Padula’s second year growing hemp; he grew about 20 acres last year.
Green Top’s plants are already thigh-high, and might resemble dainty, delicate Christmas trees to the agronomically challenged.
Lanphear, now in his 50s, has been dairy farming since he was a kid, and he still has his L&L dairy farm running while he and Padula manage Green Top. Running two operations is about double the normal amount of work, but Lanphear said he’s used to hard work. And it’s not like he doubled his cattle count.
“Dairy farming, to put it bluntly, sucks. And it has for four or five years now,” Lanphear said. “Who would ever think that, in this day and age, you could do something in farming again that could make money?”
It’s a new crop for some, but for longtime farmers, it’s still just a plant. It’s not quite the same as growing corn or vegetables, but it’s not overly different, either. You still have to put in long hours in the longest days of the year, maintain your weeds, keep your soil and crops happy.
“I think everybody does it a little different and everyone’s learning this whole new crop,” Lanphear said.
The farmers use equipment like a mulch and drip-line layer, which lays down an irrigation tube, throws mulch on it and lays a tightly wrapped plastic shield around it. Then they use a water wheel planter, which goes over the rows, pokes holes in the plastic and fills them with water, while crew members riding on the machine drop plants into the water-filled holes.
Lanphear thinks eventually the big farm-equipment names like John Deere and Case will start making equipment specifically for hemp-growing.
“We’re thinking far ahead,” he said. “We all get through this year and another year, and another year, and it’s going to simplify.”
The market for CBD product has exploded in the past few years, with the compound being put in soaps, salves and lotions and used in beverages, and food — both for humans and for their pets.
Hovey thinks there’s room for the small-scale farmer or gardener to also make a mark in the market, especially as growers and breeders make strides with the science.
Kyle Hovey, with his biology expertise, will be performing leaf analysis on the crop. When it comes time to extract the hemp oil, he’ll oversee the extraction process.
Kyle is interested in the use of spectroscopy to probe plants and determine the breakdown of chemicals within the cells that could allow farmers to maximize the percentage of CBD in the hemp. CBD is just one type of non-THC compound, with numerous other, more valuable sub-compounds.
The elder Hovey compared it to maple sugaring.
“This would be like the difference between Grade B and Fancy,” he said.
Despite its roots in history going back to America’s beginnings, hemp has long been something of an outlaw plant, thanks to its relationship with marijuana.
Neither Hovey nor Percy smokes pot. Hovey went from the military into long-term corporate gigs with General Electric and Coca-Cola, neither of which exactly promote a marijuana lifestyle.
As for Percy, “I never smoked the stuff. And I never had more than six beers in my life.”
Added Hovey, “But you drink a lot of milk, right, Paul?”
“Oh, sure,” Percy laughed. “Lotta milk.”
But just because they and a growing segment of the population know that hemp isn’t the same as pot, Hovey and Lanphear intend to keep their fields protected.
Both have signs that declare the crop as “industrial use,” and Hovey is installing a gate on the Route 100 side to dissuade the aggressively curious.
Lanphear is going a few steps further, with some surveillance cameras. Plus, he has a shotgun.
“I kind of jokingly say that when they start picking pellets out of their ass, they can go back and warn their friends,” Lanphear said.
Even this early in the season, people are curious. Lanphear said his road has had a lot more traffic than usual. And Monday at HP Farms, four cars pulled over during the 40-minute tour of Hovey’s field, both on Stagecoach Road and on Route 100.
“It’s a very pretty plant, and I think it’s gonna be pretty to look at,” Percy said. “People are gonna drive by and stretch their necks looking at it.”
Last year, Vermont hemp growers registered 3,200 acres of land with the state, as required by law. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets expects that acreage to double this year.
By the end of May, the agency had issued 570 registrations for growers. More than 90 percent of the hemp grown in Vermont is expected to be processed for CBD.
Processing will be the tough part for new hemp growers. But Hovey and Percy specced that part out, too, and are having large industrial-sized dryers shipped from China. Hovey said he’ll probably bring on a few part-timers come harvest, because that’s the key to hemp — get it picked and get it dried before it gets moldy.
“It’s going to be all hands on deck,” Hovey said.
Lanphear said last year he and Padula harvested all 20 acres by hand, hung it in the barn to dry, and stripped the flowers by hand. This year, they have a combine and they’re also going to get some big propane dryers from China.
Heather Darby, an agronomist for the University of Vermont Extension who works with hemp growers, said she has seen a lot of inexperienced people, many from out of state, start growing hemp this summer. Spring conditions were so wet that many people couldn’t get their plants into the ground until now.
“People are still trying to get planted,” she said Tuesday.
Some of those people have moved to Vermont from places like Florida, California, Colorado and even India to buy land for planting, Darby said. The $25 registration fee for growers — which will be updated Jan. 1 when new rules go into effect — is one of the draws, Darby said.
“They told me they did all this research, and this was the cheapest land, the best climate, and basically the best rules and entry fees,” she said.
Lanphear said he’s heard that some out-of-state people are leasing land and trying their hand at the hot new cash crop. But he doesn’t anticipate some land grab.
“They can’t do their thing without us farmers,” he said.
VTDigger contributed to this report.
Correction: The print version of this article mentioned the Goodrich farm; the name is Goodson.