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As Hemp Gets Planted, Connecticut Farmers Cautiously Optimistic

Patrick Skahill
Connecticut Public Radio
Thousands of hemp seedlings were placed in the ground recently in South Windsor. They'll be harvested in a few months.

A road that cuts through a dusty Connecticut farm bisects what could be the past and future of Connecticut farming. On one side is broadleaf tobacco, a staple crop of Connecticut farms for generations. On the other, delicate hemp plants, swaying in the July heat. 

Eddie Kasheta owns this land in South Windsor. For decades, it’s been a spot where his family grew tobacco. 

“When the grandparents started the farm, tobacco was king,” Kasheta said. 

But times have changed. Kasheta said if farmers want to survive, they need to change with it. 

“With the failing[s] of the market, and the up and down of the prices — and the economy — you’re forced to go into other ventures and try other things.”

Today, he’s watching as thousands of hemp plants go into the ground. 

“There are so many uses,” Kasheta said. “Brake linings, sneakers. Rope. And then you have the hemp seed that they extract oil from.” 

Hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis. But hemp lacks the chemicals needed to produce a high. What hemp does have is cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical compound that has found advocates in both the wellness and medical industry.

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Eddie Kasheta owns this plot of land in South Windsor. It's now home to thousands of hemp plants, which will be monitored as part of a pilot program set up by the state of Connecticut.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, sales of CBD in the United States could be $16 billion by 2025.

Kasheta has partnered with Incredible Edibles, the latest business venture of Edible Arrangements founder Tariq Farid, which hopes to eventually use the CBD powder as an additive to drinks and baked goods. 

Farmer Owen Jarmoc and his family started growing these as seedlings in a greenhouse just a few weeks back. They’re tiny, just a few inches tall. But, when the plants are ready for harvest in a few months, they’ll be several feet high.

Jarmoc said he’s worried about how they’ll do outside on the farm. 

“There’s no consensus at all in the marketplace about how to grow this. What’s the best technique,” Jarmoc said.

That’s because for decades, it wasn’t legal to grow hemp. But the 2014 federal farm bill changed that, setting up a pilot program that allows farmers to grow hemp under strict conditions. 

It took Connecticut a few years to set up its own pilot program. Governor Ned Lamont signed off on the idea in May. Since then, state Commissioner of Agriculture Bryan Hurlburt said the pilot program signed up 66 licensed growers.

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Hemp plants go into the ground on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Around 50,000 seedlings are expected to be planted on this 20-acre plot.

“Hemp will be the new tobacco of a hundred years ago,” Hulburt said. “When every farm, or many farms, had five or ten acres of broadleaf tobacco, because it was a high-value cash crop. That was the crop that stabilized the rest of the farm operation.”

As part of the pilot program arrangement, UConn will send out field scientists to monitor the plants’ CBD levels and collect growing data, which it will make publicly available.

Shuresh Ghimire, an extension vegetable educator at UConn, said that information will provide guidance for farmers new to growing hemp. And that next year, farmers will know a lot more about the pitfalls to avoid when it comes to growing hemp. 

“There will be problems, obviously,” Ghimire said. “It’s a field crop so there will be disease and insects.”

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Edible Arrangements founder Tariq Farid in South Windsor on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Farid is launching "Incredible Edibles," a joint-venture with several local farmers to cultivate CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical found in hemp plants, which has recently caught on in parts of the wellness and medical industry.

But in the meantime, Jarmoc said data collection will provide hemp producers like Incredible Edibles something else: traceability.

“It’s really important,” Jarmoc said. “You can go buy CBD right now all over the marketplace, but some of it doesn’t even have CBD in it.”

Ron Reynolds, with Incredible Edibles, said setting up traceability standards while researching hemp, and its potential uses in food, are two of the big reasons why his company wanted to get into the CBD market in Connecticut. 

“Part of what were are doing here is humbly learning,” Reynolds said. “Because this plant, no matter what definition you want to use, has really not been around for about 80 to 100 years.”

Jarmoc said he’s hopeful the seedlings that went in the ground today do well. If they do, he said next year, they’ll plant some more. 

But right now, Jarmoc said hemp in Connecticut is far from a sure bet. And the first true test for the state’s pilot program will be October, when these thousands of hemp plants will, hopefully, be ready for harvest.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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