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The other cannabis crop: Carroll County farmers test out growing logistics, market for newly legal hemp

Tom Bolton of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company shows some of the fall harvest of hemp plants as they hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020.
Tom Bolton of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company shows some of the fall harvest of hemp plants as they hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

At the edge of the shadows of the Catoctin Mountains in Keymar, there stands a canopy of glass enclosing 17 acres of plants, protecting them from the cold air outside one afternoon in late February. Most of what was planted inside were flowers and annuals; for more than 35 years, Catoctin Mountain Growers has supplied mums for Mother’s Day and poinsettias around the winter holidays.

But tucked away from the main corridor, a very different flowering plant was growing under a high ceiling of glass, a plant that announced its presence with a distinctly sweet, sour and skunk aroma that was thick in the warm, moist air.

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“These are probably smaller than you would picture,” Tyler Van Wingerden said, as he pointed to just one of the dark green — with a hint of purple — resinous plants in row after row on the concrete floor. “There's all the buds; you can see that sparkly oil. You can smell it if you just wipe your finger on it.”

Crew leader Lee Bolin harvests female hemp plants that are used to make CBD in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Crew leader Lee Bolin harvests female hemp plants that are used to make CBD in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

These were cannabis plants, several thousand of them in the two indoor acres, but they were not medical marijuana. They are legally, and biochemically, defined as industrial hemp.

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“There is just less than 0.3% THC in here,” Van Wingerden said, referring to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that generates a “high.” He has to get the plants lab tested prior to harvesting to ensure THC levels do not rise above that threshold.

But that doesn’t explain why the plants look like marijuana, complete with buds and strain names like “Trump” and “Cherry,” rather than the tall, lanky plants typically grown for fiber. “This is a very expensive facility, and I need to get paid so many dollars per square foot, per week,” Van Wingerden said. “Fiber does not do that.”

Instead of fiber, Van Wingerden’s plants contain a high percentage of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid cannabidiol, also known as CBD, three letters perhaps familiar to many from the displays of retail products everywhere from smoke shops to grocery stores claiming to contain the chemical.

Tyler Van Wingerden shows harvested hemp plants on drying racks in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Tyler Van Wingerden shows harvested hemp plants on drying racks in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

Van Wingerden has invested in what he describes as a state-of-the-art solvent extraction facility, housed in a special room (no electronics allowed in the enclosed space with the flammables), to extract that CBD and other potentially helpful — and non-psychoactive — compounds resulting in a thick, sticky material that looks like a dark amber honey or molasses stored in jars.

The intended purpose of this “industrial hemp” then is more medicinal, or supplemental, than the name implies.

Until recently, though, federal law made little distinction, considering hemp and marijuana identically. Both were essentially made illegal in 1937 with the Marijuana Tax Act, and after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis was listed in the most restrictive controlled substance category by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: schedule I, which also includes substances such as LSD and heroin. But federal restrictions on what is now called “industrial hemp,” cannabis with extremely low levels of THC, began to loosen with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, according to Jim Drews, turfgrass and seed program manager with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

“The 2014 Farm Bill opened up the opportunity for institutions of higher educations and departments of agriculture across the country to conduct research on growing, processing and marketing industrial hemp. So to accomplish that, they allowed those institutions to contract with farmers to grow the hemp,” Drews said. “Last year we got the regulations written and last year was our first operating under the pilot program.”

Then, the 2018 Farm Bill took industrial hemp off the federal controlled substance list, according to Drews.

Grown indoors in a climate controlled grow house, female hemp plants are grown to extract CBD at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Grown indoors in a climate controlled grow house, female hemp plants are grown to extract CBD at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

“It’s still a regulated crop and the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] was charged with writing regulations that go along with the ’18 farm bill,” he said. The USDA has yet to promulgate the final regulations, but “even though the new bill isn’t enacted 100%, anybody who wants to grow hemp in Maryland is being offered an opportunity through this research program to learn how to grow the crop.”

Catoctin Mountain Growers was interested, according to Van Wingerden, and so were at least three other farmers in Carroll County, as well as plenty more across the state.

“My parents started the company. They had four kids, I’m one of the four, and we’re all back in the company working,” he said. “We want to keep developing growing, you know, seeing what other opportunities there are, and hemp seems like something that we have a pretty good facility to play in.”

Van Wingerden was spearheading that playing around with hemp for the family, first growing outdoors in the 2019 season, and then with the experimental indoor grow — planted in December, and which greenhouse workers were busy harvesting in February, pulling the short, resinous plants from their pots and leaving them to dry on trays. “Once it’s dried, we just remove leaves and buds from stems and then the leaves and buds are what we extract,” he said.

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But, experiment or not, they never would have dabbled in growing hemp if it weren’t for the 2014 and 2018 farm bills making it legal to do so, according to Van Wingerden.

“I'm a total skeptic. I don't smoke marijuana. I’ve never had it,” he said, but when it comes to hemp, “We have been blown away at how legitimate this stuff is.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the marketing of CBD extracts for medicinal purposes or even as a food additive or supplement, but in 2018 it did approve the first CBD prescription drug, GA Pharmaceuticals’s Epidiolex, for the treatment of two rare types of epilepsy. Evidence for other uses, from the treatment of anxiety to pain management, is more mixed, but also complicated by much past research studying THC containing cannabis — not isolated THC or industrial hemp extracts.

But then there is the anecdotal evidence that would come to Van Wingerden, first stories of others having good results from taking CBD, and then evidence of a real effect in his own family.

“My dad has arthritis, he’s taking CBD, it has replaced three of his prescriptions. He doesn’t take them anymore, just CBD,” he said. “We’re excited that it seems to be proving to be really useful and actually beneficial for people. If that’s the case, we’re gonna keep going with it.”

It’s been a fun diversion into a world he never would have imagined he would enter, Van Wingerden said, but it’s also, of course, been a capital-heavy diversion — and it will become really fun when the math adds up.

“It is an investment. We’re looking at it that way, and we want to be as objective with ourselves as we can,” he said. “Does it pay for itself? Is it financially irresponsible?”

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Hemp plants harvested by the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020.
Hemp plants harvested by the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Doing the math

The University of Maryland is a land grant institution, part of the federally organized educational system set up to encourage practical education in agricultural, engineering and other disciplines. So it made sense, according to Andrew Ristvey, an extension specialist for commercial horticulture with the university, for them to partner with farmers interested in growing hemp under the 2014 pilot program.

“Maryland has nutrient management laws, and farmers have to have nutrient management plans. Anything they grow has to have some sort of nitrogen recommendations with it,” he said. “We didn’t have that information for hemp, especially these CBD varieties, so our focus was to develop the recommendations for the CBD varieties.”

Their findings? Extremely variable, with some plants needing as little as 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but most falling between 100 and 120 pounds per acre, “which is less than corn,” Ristvey said. “I’ll tell you what, it grew like a weed, pun intended or whatever, it was amazing. It had an amazing growth habit.”

Such low inputs and a high growth rate, coupled with early reports on the price farmers could sell their crop — sometimes quotes reaching $60,000 per acre — generated huge initial interest in growing industrial hemp in Maryland, according to Ristvey.

“CBD last year in January was $3.50, average price, per percent point. So if you had a 10% CBD content and you had a pound of this biomass at 10% CBD in it, you would make $3.50 per percent point, or $35 per pound. Wow,” he said. “And it went up to $4.35 per percent point in July of last year.”

So farmers rushed to get crops in the ground in the summer of 2019, but by they time they harvested in October or November, the price had dropped to a dollar a percentage point, Ristvey said.

On the production side, CBD is priced per percentage point of CBD, per pound of dry biomass, according to Ristvey, and as of late May was selling for just 25 cents per percentage point.

“There’s a glut. Everyone is growing it, and it’s flooded the market,” he said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no equilibrium to be found where growing hemp will be profitable for some Carroll County farmers, Ristvey said. It just might mean thinking about hemp as more than just a crop to swap in for corn or soybeans, and moving beyond growing only the high CBD varieties for oil extraction.

“I am part of a multistate research group, and a lot of us are going toward the idea that all of this will shake out into plants with triple or dual purposes,” Ristvey said. “They will look more like your fiber crop. Ideally you harvest the top flowers and cut your stalks down. You’ll get seed from those flowers and potentially pull CBD out of those flowers too.”

Worker James Gordon of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company trims hemp plants before running them through a stemmer as he processes the fall harvest in Westminster March 4, 2020.
Worker James Gordon of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company trims hemp plants before running them through a stemmer as he processes the fall harvest in Westminster March 4, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

If the industry heads in that direction, there might also be additional value added from growing hemp for soil management purposes, particularly for pulling excess phosphorus out of the earth.

“High phosphorus soils are really hard to reduce with corn and soybean rotations because you’re only pulling the grain off, everything else gets laid back down on the soil,” Ristvey said. “With hemp it all comes off. So we might have a good option for crop rotation in high phosphorus soils, so long as we can begin to get that fiber and grain industry back into the U.S. again, because right now it’s just CBD.”

But what about the growers planting the high CBD varieties right now, like Van Wingerden, who was planning to put pants in the ground for an outdoor crop in early June? Ristvey believes it’s all about finding some added value — so rather than just growing hemp and selling the dried material to a processor, farmers could make the same investment Van Wingerden did in their own oil extraction apparatus, and market and sell a retail product.

Or they could imitate the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company of Westminster, offering people smokable flowers — buds that people could smoke but would not make them high.

A different route

Tom Bolton is a pharmacist in his day job — he owns and operates Carroll Drugs in Manchester — but he has deep personal roots in agriculture.

He said he grew up on a tobacco farm and extensively studied biochemistry in pharmacy school. When the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission started developing regulations for medicinal marijuana, Bolton got interested in combining those two threads, ultimately joining with a farmer partner to apply to grow and distribute that plant material.

“We both were rejected, which, you know, hindsight, everyone says that everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Hemp plants harvested by the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020.
Hemp plants harvested by the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company hang to dry in a barn in Westminster March 4, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

In 2019, Bolton and his business partner planted five acres of industrial hemp at a farm just north of Baltimore, where on a sunny day in early March, Bolton walked through a massive barn, looking up at the hundreds of hemp plants hung upside down from the rafters, twisting gently and rustling in the breeze like stealthy wind chimes. On the floor here and there were massive bails of straw.

“This is the way tobacco cures,” Bolton said, another way his past is informing his future. “In this room it’s great, because this straw actually has heat in it, so it keeps it above freezing in here, and it also holds humidity. The ideal humidity you want it to be at about 14% relative humidity.”

That’s especially important because while Bolton and the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company are making some extracts, as Van Wingerden is, he has been treating the green buds of his hemp as a final product in the same way medical marijuana producers do, betting that many people will be interested in smoking hemp flowers.

“Why would they smoke that if they can get medical marijuana? The reality is a lot of the people who purchase this have medical cards too,” Bolton said.

Tom Bolton of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company shows the dried flower of a hemp plant harvested in Westminster March 4, 2020.
Tom Bolton of the Mid Atlantic Hemp Company shows the dried flower of a hemp plant harvested in Westminster March 4, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

It comes down to just what is in the plants, he said. Both THC and CBD come from the same chemical precursors in the cannabis plant, so that the selective breeding for high THC levels in medical and recreational marijuana strains has lead to lower levels of CBD in those plants — just as breeding for high CBD has led to negligible levels of THC formation in industrial hemp.

CBD interacts with the human nervous system in a fashion that is somewhat antagonistic to the way THC interacts, a fact Bolton believes leads credence to reports that while high THC strains of cannabis can cause anxiety, especially in newer users, CBD reportedly exerts an anti-anxiety effect. At least one study in the Netherlands is examining the use of CBD in conjunction with exposure therapy to treat patients with severe phobias.

What that means, practically speaking, is that rather than just growing up some hemp and selling it to someone on Colorado to make hemp products from, Bolton has been selling smokable flower in smoke shops here in Carroll County, and doing significantly better from modeling the business after the medical marijuana industry.

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“I was predicting they would be more valuable, which they are,” he said. “If I was growing this for CBD production only, and selling it to a processor, I would have lost money this year, no question.”

Plant comparisons

There are still a lot of uncertainties in the new industrial hemp market, according to Ristvey, and like with medical marijuana, there are few parallel experiences that can be pointed to for comparison.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Carroll County led the world in the production of another oily, shrubby crop, wormseed, which produced an oil used to treat infection by parasitic worms in humans and livestock. But wormseed eventually all but died away as a viable business crop once synthetic alternatives became available in the 1960s.

Industrial hemp might similarly have to contend with large pharmaceutical companies and their treatments, like Epidiolex, that are approved by the FDA and covered by health insurance plans. Bioengineers at the University of California, Berkeley, meanwhile, have spliced cannabis genes into brewers yeast and have shown it’s possible, in principle, to produce CBD in a bioreactor, no tillable acreage required.

“All you need to do is feed the yeast sugar, and it makes CBD,” Ristvey said. “No need to put it in the ground, worry ’bout pests, worry ’bout labor, and it’s pure CBD that it’s making.”

Other than archaic wormseed and medical marijuana, the only other recent example Ristvey could think of for a new crop being brought into Maryland would be hops, in the early 2010s, as a result of the explosion of microbreweries and the popularity of aggressively hopped India pale ale beers.

“I tell my growers, if you want to know if a plant gets a disease, grow it in Maryland; our climate is perfect for disease,” he said, “and hops are very sensitive to humidity and heat.”

It was quickly seen to be a flash in the pan, he said. “It was an absolute failure.”

But hops are not cannabis, for better or worse.

“I don’t think hops ever achieved the interest that cannabis has,” Ristvey said. “There are so many people still interested in growing it.”

That said, it might come down to how many of those growers can find success in the value-added market plant, according to Ristvey, as he believes the fundamentals simply aren’t there to justify Carroll County ditching corn stalks for sticky buds as far as the eye can see.

“The whole idea that you are going to make $60K an acre isn’t going to happen,” he said. “Should farmers rip up their corn fields and plant hemp? No.”

Crew leader Lee Bolin places hemp plants on a drying rack as he helps bring in an indoor winter harvest of the crop in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Crew leader Lee Bolin places hemp plants on a drying rack as he helps bring in an indoor winter harvest of the crop in a grow house at Catoctin Mountin Growers in Detour Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

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