COLCHESTER – It’s 2019. Hemp is now legal and it’s Vermont-grown.

In a warehouse tucked into an otherwise anonymous corner of Colchester, the St. Albans-based Colomont, Inc. has built a greenhouse sequestered into four rooms.

In each room, a host of plants at each stage of development are either neatly arrayed or clustered beneath the only lights in otherwise dark rooms. The most mature of those plants, with their handprint leaves and clumped flowers, are almost immediately recognizable.

It’s hemp, an industrial variety of the cannabis plant whose advocates – everyone from local consumers to Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture – herald it as a cash crop for struggling farmers, a source of alternative medicine and an industrial wonder crop whose byproducts could be used in everything from clothing and building blocks to artisanal food.

These plants’ cultivators are quick to point out these plants are different from their more notorious cousin – marijuana. These plants, they note, have a level of tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC – below the state- and federally-allowed limit and well below the amount found in recreational marijuana.

Instead, these plants are bred for other chemicals, namely the cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of cannabis sativa better known as CBD. Once CBD is mined, and if it’s up to Colomont’s standards, that CBD might be sold as a medicinal product or infused with another product.

“There are so many professionals out there, and they’ll all agree we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Colomont’s Stephen Trombley. “It’s the Wild West.”

A Colomont greenhouse in Franklin County. (Photo courtesy of James McNab, Colomont).

Hemp is legalized

Before partial legalization in 2014 and full legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was banned under federal law. Drug laws provided only blanket bans on cannabis, including hemp in a ban tailored toward curtailing drug use.

While individual states would eventually carve out their own legal spaces for cannabis production and sale, hemp was peripheral as an agricultural product.

With the 2014 Farm Bill, states were allowed to legalize pilot programs. Vermont was one of the first to do so, establishing the statewide program that allowed Colomont its start in 2014.

Colomont is the brainchild of Chris Santee who was drawn primarily to CBD’s medicinal applications.

“The CBD oil has so many potential health benefits that I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to help folks – including myself,” Santee said when the Messenger met with Santee and state officials in Colomont’s Fairfax hemp field last summer.

“I had rotator cuff, and it looked like I needed surgery. There was tremendous pain in my left shoulder. I could not sleep on that side. I couldn’t raise my arm above being horizontal to the ground,” Santee said. “Now I have full mobility. I went out and played golf a week ago… and there was no pain whatsoever.”

The medicinal benefits of CBD are still disputed. Published research does, however, support that CBD can lessen anxiety in those struggling with schizophrenia and opioid addiction, and, earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved its first CBD-based drug: a prescription medication for treating childhood epilepsy.

Advocates cite other possibilities for CBD as medicine, with many referencing their own experiences with the CBD oils for managing pain and jumping into the industry specifically for that purpose.

Today, Colomont – its name an amalgamation of Colorado, where Santee first explored hemp, and Vermont – offers more than two dozen products on its site. During its busiest seasons, the company employs 80 workers to staff facilities and farms in Franklin County and Colchester.

The company also consults with businesses and farmers interested in joining the industry and sells seeds.

Since the state legalized the production of hemp, Vermont’s hemp industry has exploded.

As previously reported by the Messenger, numbers provided by the state show  that, in 2016, there were 29 registered growers with 180 acres of hemp planted statewide. By 2017, those numbers grew to 96 growers with 580 acres of hemp under their watch.

By the end of 2018, those numbers had swollen exponentially. According to the Agency of Agriculture, there are now 400 registered growers in the state of Vermont with 2,600 acres of land dedicated to the crop.

Santee, speaking with Agency of Agriculture officials in Fairfax, said demand still outpaces that surging supply.

“The demand is growing rapidly. It’s become hard to keep up with.”

How sustainable that explosion in growth is remains a source of anxiety for some including the industry’s leading regulators at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

“Our farmers are so productive in this country that they may flood the market before we develop the supply chain of all the products,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters in Milton last week. “You’re talking about a thousand different products there… There’s almost a medical fad going on with CBD oil, and we don’t know if that’s sustainable or not.

“It’s a developing industry. It could be huge – so much excitement and so much conversation about it today. I just hope it lives up to the hype.”

Hemp grown in Colomont’s Colchester greenhouse. (Michael Frett, MESSENGER STAFF)

“It’s something you can’t just look at”

Per Trombley, Vermont’s mostly temperate climate and good soils give the state’s hemp growers a competitive advantage. “We’re in a special place,” Trombley said. “We do have a perfect microclimate.”

Growing hemp does come with challenges, however.

Reports from the University of Vermont Extension program, which maintains several plots of industrial hemp at its research site in Alburgh, paint hemp as a fickle plant that can be difficult to establish depending on the strain and locale.

While the Extension program’s first year with hemp yielded a healthy crop, UVM Extension’s second year crop of hemp came in well below the expectations, a result they attribute to unfavorable weather conditions and difficulty with establishing their crop.

Colomont’s reported a meticulously studied success with its crops, according to Trombley, who scrolled through some of Colomont’s data as he spoke with the Messenger.

Even determining the success can be difficult for some farmers, as the quality of a product is wholly dependent on the chemical composition of the crop once harvested. That’s why, according to Trombley, even the largest, bushiest crops – those that might appear the healthiest – might not be the best quality.

“You’re not getting an idea until the end,” Tromlbey said. “It comes down to the chemical contents… It’s something you just can’t look at.”

The standards for measuring those contents aren’t set in stone yet, either, with different companies levying different equipment and procedures to provide different numbers for mapping the quality of their products. “It’s something they haven’t perfected yet,” Trombley said.

It’s also helped foster confusion on the part of the legislators tasked with regulating the industry.

Trombley estimated that, on average, he meets with officials in Montpelier two or three times a month and that a representative from Colomont is at the statehouse once a week. Optimistically, though, Trombley added that supporting hemp seemed to be one of the few things with near universal support from both sides of the political aisle.

A grower speaks with Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts in Colomont’s Fairfax field. Under Tebbetts, the Agency of Agriculture has been supportive of developing hemp as an alternative crop for dairy farmers struggling with low milk prices. (Michael Frett, MESSENGER STAFF)

“People who are just wanting to help”

The difficulty hasn’t stopped a rush to the hemp industry, complete with accompanying speculation and misinformation.  “Imagine the Gold Rush,” Trombley said. “You’ve got a lot of people coming into it, and there’s a few people holding up this large nugget that’s bringing people in… Only, sometimes, that nugget’s fake…”

Still, according to Trombley, who signed onto Colomont’s staff in the fall of 2017, the industry can be a positive place.

The Agency of Agriculture has backed the development of a hemp industry, its officials comparing hemp to sugaring as a way to support Vermont’s farms. Colomont stresses its own goals of promoting alternative medicines.

Those grander statements have trickled down to the individual growers and farmhands, Trombley said.

“You’ll have some people who are just wanting to help.”

For those in Franklin County interested in learning more about the nascent hemp industry, Colomont is holding a free public workshop at the Abbey in Sheldon on April 20, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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