Vermont’s New, Lucrative Cash Crop

Luce Farm cooks Mike Pfeil and Lori Bullett prepare a batch of CBD oil at the organization’s commercial kitchen in downtown Bethel. (Herald / Dylan Kelley)

Farmers, Investors Look To Growing Cannabis Industry

With the legalization of recreational marijuana in many states, including Vermont, and a softening of the federal government’s stance on the commercial sale of cannabis-related products, one particular derivative of the
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cannabis sativa plant has exploded in popularity.

Cannabidiol, commonly referred to as “CBD”—a non-psychotropic oil extracted from hemp can be found in dozens of variations and is being hailed—at least anecdotally— for its efficacy as an anti-seizure, anti-inflammatory, and anti-anxiety supplement.

First isolated in the 1940s and prohibited until recently by the federal government, CBD has quickly become a marketable crop with scores of businesses across the state hoping to cash in on the widely praised but little studied substance.

Sprouting Up

One farm that has already enjoyed the benefits of hemp and CBD is the 200-year old Luce Farm in Stockbridge. Pulled out of agricultural dormancy by two former vegetable farmers, Joe and Rebecca Pimentel, the operation began cultivating hemp in 2016. The couple had grown frustrated by the low profit margins of the organic food industry which, despite their relocation from Massachusetts, had failed to live up to their hopes of a viable business.

A large volume of hemp extract is prepared for packaging at Luce Farm’s commercial kitchen in Bethel. (Herald / Dylan Kelley)

A large volume of hemp extract is prepared for packaging at Luce Farm’s commercial kitchen in Bethel. (Herald / Dylan Kelley)

“We were looking for a change,” said Joe Pimentel as he recounted the process of considering everything from agri-tourism to a teepee village as a way to generate much-needed revenue for the struggling farmstead. “Cannabis was one of those things that we were investigating.”

After growing his first 100 plants in 2016, Pimentel began to immerse himself in learning about CBD extraction and started selling his first few batches of CBD extracts and infused honey at nearby farmers’ markets.

“At old veggie markets, you’d be stoked if you were doing $3–400,” said Pimentel of his sales before growing hemp. “[With CBD] we were doing $1,000 here and $700 there and people were driving from Burlington to get the freaking honey in Stockbridge.”

It didn’t take long before the Pimentels decided to set aside the veggie business and turn their full attention to growing hemp. With a bit of seed money in the form of a $100,000 contribution from the White River Investment Club, Luce Farm has since expanded its operation: bringing on 12 full-time employees, seven consultants, and as many as 15 seasonal workers. Now, instead of making CBD-infused honey in 10-jar batches, the organization ships 300 jars a week.

In the process, sales of CBD products from Luce Farm Wellness rose tenfold from 2017 to 2018, Pimentel said.

“If five years ago you said to me that this is what I’d be doing right now, I would’ve been shocked,” he laughed from the comfort of his commercial kitchen overlooking the White River in downtown Bethel. “All the stars kind of aligned in the right way.”

Diol-ing’ In

Now that the business is successfully off the ground, Pimentel spends a significant portion of his time on educating the public— banking on the idea that consumers may recognize his locally sourced and “open book” product.

“One thing we’re trying to do is not just educate people about our products, but educate people about the questions they should be asking,” said Pimentel as he outlined what, for him, are crucial pieces of information: where and how the hemp was grown, what process was used to extract the CBD, and whether or not the final extract was “full-spectrum” or simply the isolated CBD oil.

Pimentel is particularly bullish about the benefits of full-spectrum extract over CBD isolate—a distinction he compares to eating an orange versus drinking a glass of orange juice.

Despite having no strict definition of “full-spectrum,” Pimental claims that such an extract “mimics the cannabinoid and turpene profile of the actual flower.”

But because of the sheer newness of the entire hemp industry in Vermont, Pimentel admits that the lack of strict definitions, regulations, and enforceable standards means that “anybody could put whatever the hell they want into this jar and put whatever label on it.”

The lack of regulation, oversight, and opportunities for research has also bedeviled those interested in learning more about CBD’s real-world health benefits.

Joshua T. White, who serves as chief medical officer at Gifford Medical Center, said that what little science is available on CBD shows promise but remains snarled in federal regulation.

“There’s some definite effects that have been positive in studies,” said White. “One of the big issues right now is that, due to the federal approach to marijuana, it’s very hard to study anything related to marijuana, [including] things like CBD.”

Pointing to studies—and at least one FDA-approved medication— indicating that CBD could have a range of medical applications, White said that he couldn’t think of a good reason, beyond cost, to dissuade his patients from supplementally using CBD, which is nonhabit forming and appears to have relatively few side effects.

“As far as I can tell right now, I have no reason to tell a person not to take this if they want to—especially for the pain patients,” said White. “There’s going to be, definitely, fewer side effects than other pain medications, particularly narcotics.

“The opiate crisis is a very big deal and we’ve seen a lot of damage across the nation,” he added. “Any alternative to [opiates] that could help people out would be a boon to both patients and the providers.”

But don’t think that you’ll be getting a CBD prescription or a recommendation from Dr. White any time soon, he said, pointing to Gifford’s status as a Federally Qualified Health Center and the mis-alignment between state and federal cannabis prohibition.

“We cannot formally endorse that kind of thing, based on the government’s stance [toward cannabis,]” he said. “It’s puts us in a really odd position. We’re sorting of waiting for these governmental bodies to sort themselves out.

“This would be a nice thing for the feds to relax on,” added White. “It would be very nice to have some solid research on this stuff and figure out what we can do to benefit patients.”

Fruition

While Vermont hospitals wait for federal and state authorities to clarify their positions on the cannabis industry, other WRV institutions are diving in head first.

Beginning in the fall, Vermont Technical College (VTC) is offering a program for CBD and Greenhouse Cash Crop certification through its Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems.

The coursework is designed to boost workforce development and will focus on CBD cultivation as well as transferable skills such as greenhouse management and integrated pest management, said program coordinator Molly Willard, who heads the institute.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of businesses cropping up and a lot of entrepreneurs looking to get into this field,” said Willard, who noted that the program will be facilitated by two experts in propagation and hydroponics respectively. “What we’re trying to focus on is forward-looking technologies that respond to the market need and, in this case, those that would be suited to CBD production and topics that relate to that new market opportunity.”

With about six students enrolled so far, the certificate program has reached about half of its overall capacity, Willard said.

Back at Luce Farm Wellness, Joe Pimentel believes the rapidly expanding market for CBD and cannabis-related products also points to the need for farmers to band together and avoid some of the hazards that have hampered the region’s dairy economy.

“We want to find farmers that can grow small plots of hemp on their land to supplement their revenue stream.

“Hopefully [that will] allow them to put money back into [their farm] and somehow make it prosper again,” he added. “Somebody is making money off the dairy industry and it ain’t the farmers. We can’t let that happen to the medicinal world as well.”

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