John Black talks about the investments he has made in his operation, New England Hemp Institute, including Italian farm equipment and several large tractors. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

NORTH ANSON — John Black has arranged his equipment around a recently empty dairy barn: neat piles of irrigation tubing, dozens of components, two shiny, 12-foot-tall satellite-guided tractors.

He’s got every-farmer woes – if only it hadn’t rained so much and he’d gotten that extra three weeks in the ground – and for the first time, millions of dollars on the line.

“All of this equipment is from Italy. Some of it’s the first here in the country,” said Black, 44, pointing to half a dozen bright-orange machines.

The unusual lengths are for an unusual crop freshly poised for a surge in Maine.

Last year, 82 farmers were licensed to grow 550 acres of industrial hemp in the state, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

The crop looks like marijuana while virtually free of chemicals that create a high. It’s used for rope, fiber and the current rage, cannabidiol oil.

This year, 167 farmers are licensed for 2,706 acres.

Wilton native Black planted nearly one-third of that.

The conglomerates are coming, he says. He’s trying to be big enough not to get crushed. His hemp farm, under the name New England Hemp Institute, is the largest in New England, maybe the largest growing for CBD oil east of the Mississippi.

While he and some Maine farmers last year harvested their hemp crops with chain saws – full-grown plants can amount to small trees – this year, Black has bought a nearly half-million-dollar forage harvester to do the job.

He’s planted 840 acres and hopes to bale 1 million to 1.5 million pounds of hemp this fall.

He says he planted a 20-acre test crop in Turner and Wilton last year to test the market, then decided to scale up.

“I want to be excited, but it’s hard to get there,” Black said this week. “I was excited in January and February, planning it and getting it going. Now it’s the real deal. I tell people, it’s not the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s the longest hours. Lucky those tractors have lights and navigation because there’s been 11 o’clock nights.”

John Black displays one of the signs that ring his farm in North Anson to deter theft and educate the neighbors. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

‘STARTING TO REALLY BUILD AN INDUSTRY’

Across the country, farmers planted 85,000 acres of industrial hemp last year, as much as 80 percent of it bound for the CBD market, according to Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association.

Forty-eight states already allowed some growing before the U.S. Farm Bill in December 2018 federally legalized the crop, he said. In the past six weeks, Texas and Florida, too, have jumped on board.

“This year, which is a little concerning to me, we are starting to see a huge number of permit applications to the point where Montana alone has had permits for 115,000 acres,” Whaling said. “Again, a lot of it is CBD-focused.”

The obvious draw: Farmers can earn $20,000 to $25,000 an acre growing and processing strains of CBD-rich hemp, he said. For other uses, it’s more like $7,000 to $9,000.

CBD oil, currently unregulated, can be added to capsules, soaps, skin care and food. Whaling has seen claims on bottles as bold as “cures death.”

Barry Kallander in his hemp field at Gray Farm Maple in Denmark. Kallander is a state-licensed grower of high CBD industrial hemp. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

It isn’t crystal clear yet what it cures or helps, he said.

“Just the other day, I was in a bodega in New York and there was CBD on the counter and I said to the person behind it, ‘Oh, CBD, what can you tell me about this?’ ” Whaling said. ” ‘If you have Parkinson’s or (multiple sclerosis) or anything, this will be terrific for you.’ I said, ‘Really? For $9.99?’ and she said, ‘Oh yes, it’s great’ – that is not where we want to go.”

As he’s recovered from a broken neck, he’s taken CBD every day.

“I could not function without it,” Whaling said. “It has provided me with benefits, but we really need to know why. If the farm bill has done anything, it has now allowed for research in all forms of CBD and hemp to be undertaken.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture are weighing CBD rules and regulations. In the meantime, Whaling urges “buyer beware” – look for third-party verification on products, like testing lab results – and hopes the national conversation swings toward the thousands of other uses for industrial hemp.

“Seed for animal consumption, oil that can be used for cosmetics and body care,” he said. “It can be used in auto parts to make bioplastics, paper, animal bedding, landscaping – we need to race to focus on that.”

A hemp plant at Gray Farm Maple in Denmark. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

It’s already a multibillion-dollar market, he said.

“Five years from now, we’ll be starting to really build an industry,” Whaling said. “Twenty years from now people we’ll be saying, ‘Well, what was the big deal?’ because it will be everywhere.”

‘VERY MUCH LIKE GROWING CORN’

Barry Kallander planted 1,000 hemp seedlings for the first time on a half-acre plot in Denmark this spring. He and his wife, Carol, split their time between Maine and Massachusetts. He was looking for another use for their 340 acres beyond a small-scale maple syrup farm when he connected with Michelle Wheeler and Drew Robbins, the husband and wife owners of Nectar of Maine in Bridgton, a CBD retail and smoothie shop.

They’ve partnered as Cannabased Wellness and have plans to open a 4,000-square-foot manufacturing and processing lab in Fryeburg later this fall.

“I wanted to be squeaky clean in this,” Kallander said. “I didn’t want to do something that was legal in the state, but it was still illegal at the federal level.”

A hemp field at Gray Farm Maple in Denmark. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

He estimated their investment by the end of the season will be about $15 per plant, plus farming equipment.

Many of their rows are involved in a trial of a soil additive for the company Cool Planet.

“Yield is everything,” he said. “If we’ve got 1,000 pounds out there and we can get another 100 pounds, that’s tens of thousands of dollars.”

Kallander, Wheeler and Robbins are hoping to take their experience from this year’s first growing season and teach a series of seminars in the winter enticing other farmers to give it a try on as little as one-eighth of an acre.

“There’s going to be small growers and there’s going to be huge growers,” Kallander said. “Our goal is not to be a 100-acre farmer, but to develop close relationships with people who are growing 100 acres. I know a lot of gentleman farmers who are growing an acre of corn — he could make a lot more money growing cannabis right now.”

Maine started issuing industrial hemp licenses in 2016, according to Gary Fish, who oversees the state program. Two people grew it that first year.

A hemp plant at Gray Farm Maple in Denmark. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Androscoggin County now has the third-most grow sites in the state at 24, Somerset County the most at 42.

The state hasn’t capped the number of allowable acres. The only thing required for a license is a $100 application fee, a per-acre license agreement charge and letting the state come in 15 to 30 days before harvest to test that the plants have 0.3 percent or less of “delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC,” the main psychoactive ingredient in recreational and medical marijuana.

All grows have so far been outdoors. Indoor trials will start later this year.

“There are no fencing requirements or signage requirements because of the low THC,” Fish said. “It is very much like growing corn. It requires lots of nitrogen, well-drained soil and lots of light.”

Chris Grigsby, director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Certification Services, said MOFGA has offered Clean Cannabis Certification since 2017 for both medical marijuana and industrial hemp grows.

Michelle Wheeler makes a CBD smoothie in the Nectar of Maine store in Bridgton. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“They really wanted a third-party verified marketing claim that they could use for their customers and patients, giving them a sense of what their growing practices were,” he said.

Thirty-two crops have been certified to date with 15 applications pending this year. Of those 15, a handful for industrial hemp are from active farmers who are adding the crop to their mix.

“I definitely think there is a lot of growth opportunities for the state,” Grigsby said. “A lot of people are feeling Maine soils are really good for hemp. There’s definitely a lot of farmland here that can be utilized.”

‘WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY’

Black has applied to have a portion of his 840 acres certified. Most of his farm, 740 acres, is at a North Anson dairy farm that’s winding up business. Another 100 acres are in New Sharon.

He’s been approached by farms looking to close next year and hopes to plant 1,500 to 2,000 acres in 2020.

Drew Robbins displays the website link triggered by scanning the QR code on the bottom of each bottle of CDB oil that Cannabased Wellness produces. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Black started Rocky Hill Landscaping as a freshman in college and has a degree in plant and soil science. He and his wife, Corey, are both registered medical marijuana caregiver growers and have an indoor operation for that along with a 1-million-worm farm — worm castings, or waste, is popular natural fertilizer with medical marijuana growers, he said.

They bought the former Wilton tannery from the town for $1 four years ago after a massive brownfield cleanup, intending to move the worm farm there and now have even bigger plans for what they renamed the Wilson Stream Business Park:

A space under renovation will be used to dry and bag 20,000 pounds of hemp per hour starting this fall, for themselves and others. Next year, he’d like to see a 300- to 400-seat conference center for hemp-related classes and speakers and a new extraction and tissue lab.

“We want to be the first vertically integrated, off-the-grid hemp processing facility in the world,” Black said. “We’re putting a solar farm in so we’ll generate our own power.” Among their different ventures, “there could be 100 full-time employees in two years.”

They have 20 workers now and would hire more if they could find them.

Last year with his test crop, Black noticed three issues with larger field operations: “Nobody could dry it or knows how to dry it. Nobody knows how to harvest” – hence the chain saws – and “a lot of them haven’t thought about where they’re going to sell it.”

Full spectrum CBD oil at Nectar of Maine in Bridgton. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

He’s also at work on that third issue, having secured an outlet for his hemp and talking to a South Carolina lab to see if he can be a drop site for other farmers.

Black planted 970,000 seeds this year, some of them test strains for rope and fiber. Diversifying is already on his mind.

He’s had two investors back the big crop and ramp-up.

“Any market, there’s a window of opportunity to jump into the marketplace and be a front-runner,” Black said. “We spent $1.5 million just in equipment (this spring.) It’s created jobs. Hammond Lumber gets business, the local contractor gets business, Campbell’s hardware – you go in for a bolt, you need about 60 of them. It’s been a huge economy stimulator and that’s what people have to remember when they look at this. And it’s only going to get bigger.”

John Black checks out one of the hemp plants on his 740-acre farm in North Anson. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


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