For the first time since Maine legalized hemp in 2009 and the federal government followed suit in 2018, at least one Maine farm is growing the versatile plant for its edible seeds.

This is a significant development for Maine vegans, vegetarians, health food eaters and others like me who consume a lot of hemp hearts, hemp powder or hemp oil and want to support local farmers. For years, my family has eaten more than a bag of organic hemp seeds every week at a cost close to $700 a year. The tiny hemp seed’s nutrient density and significant health benefits make the high price worth it, yet every one of those seeds I buy comes from a Canadian farm.

Farmers Colleen Maguire and Susan Hunter hope to change this.

Maguire, who owns Silver Highlands Farm in Plymouth, and Hunter, who owns Hunter Green Farm in Unity, have partnered to grow 2½ acres of hemp as a grain crop in Plymouth. In the nearby town of Unity, the farmers grow vegetables, herbs and hemp for the medicinal CBD and CBG market.

Maine’s first edible hemp seed crop will be sold at Maine Tradehers Market, a local food store scheduled to open this fall at 956 Albion Road in Unity. Photo courtesy of Silver Highlands Farm

“We’re trialing the grain seed primarily for oil, but in addition we’re playing around with it to see what works best,” said Maguire of their plans to produce small batches of hemp hearts, hemp powder and hemp meal. The two farmers will extract the hemp seed oil themselves and sell it directly to customers at their newest venture, Maine Tradehers Market, a locally sourced food store scheduled to open this fall at 956 Albion Road in Unity.

Before they can be sold, hemp hearts will need to milled. The farmers are searching for a Maine processor willing to dehull a small batch of hemp seeds.

Aaron Parker owns edible plant greenhouse Edgewood Nursery in Falmouth and grew three hemp plants in 2019 to gauge their grain yield potential.

“I got about a quart of seed off of each plant,” Parker said, “which is pretty decent, but not amazing. I’ve eaten some of them, and they’ll be seed stock for future planting. I hope in the future to have hemp seedlings available for sale.”

Parker didn’t dehull his hemp seeds, a process that removes the hard outer coating to reveal the tender hemp heart inside. The hull is edible but very crunchy. The nutty seeds work well sprinkled over salad, while the hemp hearts are better suited to porridge, smoothies and veggie burgers. Homemade hemp milk can be produced using either hemp hearts or the whole seeds because the milk is strained before drinking. The seeds can also be processed into nut butter.

“The biggest problem I ran into was the particular variety I was growing required too long of a season,” Parker said. “They were pretty much able to finish, but I was out there harvesting the day before a hard frost.”

Back in Unity, Maguire said when growing “for seeds you harvest it early when it’s still green, so you don’t have to deal with birds and shatter.” (Shatter is when a seed head breaks apart during harvest and the grain is lost.)

A field of hemp grown for its grain grows at Silver Highlands Farm in Plymouth. Photo courtesy of Silver Highlands Farm

Their plants are “doing fine,” Maguire said, “They’re just a little smaller than I’d like at this point. The heat has been a challenge. If it’s still decent weather going into October, we’ll be good.”

Yet as an experienced farmer who’s grown hemp for the past three years, Maguire knows “plans don’t always work out.”

“Once we strip off that outer shell, we’ll have hemp hearts,” she said. “I need to see what the process is and what’s involved and gauge the cost versus the need. If it goes well this year, we have the potential of tripling or quadrupling our acreage. It’s all still very, very new here so we’re still trying to work out the growing challenges.”

Hemp seed plants are grown in tightly packed rows like other grain crops, which makes harvesting grain hemp different from harvesting medicinal hemp, where each plant is cultivated into a large bush and harvested with a chainsaw or handsaw. McGuire and Hunter have arranged for help at harvest time from a nearby farmer who owns a combine.

Maguire said once the seeds are harvested, they need “to be dried within a few hours, then sealed and stored.”

John Jemison, the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension hemp expert, told me that farmers growing and processing buckwheat for ployes flour could potentially dehull hemp seeds. “There might be an opportunity up in the County, where they have a lot of buckwheat and they have the dehullers,” Jemison speculated.

Over the border in Quebec, the certified organic Aliments Trigone mill specializes in processing hemp seeds and buckwheat.

The reason Hunter and Maguire are growing their CBD hemp and their grain hemp on different farms is because the two cultivars of hemp need to be widely separated, according to Jemison. In order to produce seeds, hemp plants must be pollinated. CBD hemp, in contrast, is grown for flowers that have not been pollinated. Jemison said the wind-pollinated plants produce “a light pollen” that can travel miles on the prevailing winds.

Another complicating factor is that hemp is dioecious, which means hemp plants may be either female or male. The female plants produce flowers and the male plants produce pollen. To ensure a CBD hemp crop is all female, farmers must purchase special feminized seeds, which Maguire said can cost an astounding $1 to $5 per seed. Grain hemp plants need to be both male and female for the seeds to form, and so the seed stock is less expensive (although still pricier than more common grain crops, according to Maguire).

Last year, Jemison was in Colorado and said that state’s hemp farming sector is far ahead of Maine’s. “They have widespread grain production and widespread CBD production,” Jemison said.

Canada, too, is decades ahead of the United States market. Hemp was legalized in Canada in 1998, and more recently the Canadian government has moved to invest heavily in its plant-based foods sector, with plans to pump $153 million into the plant-based protein market. Canada expects the investment to create more than 4,500 jobs and boost its economy by $4.5 billion.

According to Zion Market Research, the global hemp seed market is worth more than $300 million. In the U.S., most edible hemp seeds are imported since the nascent American hemp industry has just begun to enter the seed and grain market. A November 2019 report from New Frontier Data said the U.S. imports almost $48 million in hemp seeds annually, mostly from Canada.

The amount of hemp hearts being eaten in Maine is unknown, as no one tracks hemp seed sales on a state-by-state basis. Whole Foods Market in Portland, the state’s largest health food store, stocks multiple brands of bagged hemp hearts, including its own certified organic house brand, which costs more than $1 an ounce. At the much smaller Portland Food Co-op nearby, hemp hearts are sold both pre-bagged or in bulk. Altogether, shoppers have bought almost 70 pounds of hemp hearts in the first seven months of the year, according to manager Jonathan Uribe.

Hemp seeds and protein powder are common add-ons at Maine smoothie shops, and they’ve become a go-to ingredient of major food manufacturers seeking to capitalize on growing consumer demand for plant-based foods. This means that if Hunter and Maguire have a successful harvest this season, they may be the first Maine farmers to enter the booming hemp seed trade.

“The market potential is absolutely there,” Maguire said. “Actually, I think with COVID and all the challenges we’re experiencing, people are recognizing the need for local access to quality produce and quality food.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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