The New York State Hemp Industry Is Growing Like A Weed

Photo: Shutterstock

On December 20, farmers and entrepreneurs struck gold when Congress passed the The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, or the “Farm Bill.” The law uprooted hemp from the controlled substances list, approving it for industrial growth in all 50 states.

Four months later, hundreds of licenses to grow and process the newly-legalized plant — otherwise known as Cannabis sativa L — have been distributed to eager growers throughout New York State. Prior to the greenlight for industrial growth, growing hemp was restricted to academic research institutions, of which Cornell was among the first to receive a license in 2017.

Now, economic analysts are calling hemp the most lucrative cash crop farmers have seen in decades, with the industry projected to grow 18.3 percent each year over the next decade. Business is already booming. And Cornell will lend a hand in helping the crop succeed.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a natural compound found in cannabis plants. It can be extracted as an oil and infused into food, used topically to treat pain and injected as medication. It is different than THC, which is a psychoactive compound, found in trace amounts in hemp and high volumes in marijuana. CBD has people saying adjectives like “miraculous” and decades-old family farms flying the coop from other crops into hemp.

One of these farmers is Steve Crispell, a flower farmer from Caroline, New York — about 15 minutes outside of Ithaca — who is waving goodbye to waving petunias for a future in hemp harvesting.

At the time of his interview with The Sun in late February, Crispell had just finished a conversation at another table with a fellow farmer and business woman, Colleen Coleman. They had united to discuss their potential partnership in this quickly growing field.

Similar conversations are happening at café tables across New York. Crispell said that the money-making potential of hemp is bringing people together: “Investors and businesspeople together with the farmers out there getting their hands dirty. [Hemp is] the best opportunity farmers have had in their lifetimes. I don’t know of another crop as lucrative.”

When it comes to hemp, Larry Smart ’87 is true to his name. Once he observed the “changes in our political leadership” in 2016, he knew it was time to search for another topic of research — besides his original area of expertise, willow — that would be better funded by the government. And then came hemp.

Smart has worked at the Cornell AgriTech facility in Geneva, the Agriculture and Life Science School of Integrative Plant Science, for ten years; two of those years on hemp. His team’s task is to develop the perfect New York State hemp plant. They breed for grain and fiber yield, disease resistance, high CBD content and low THC content. Heavy restrictions are still in place to prevent farmers from sneakily growing marijuana — if more than 0.3 percent of the high-inducing compound are found, the whole crop must be destroyed, according to the USDA.

Last year, the program evaluated fifty commercial hemp cultivars — selectively bred variations — planted across the state: in Geneva, on the Ithaca campus, on Long Island, and the Chazy research center.

One of the largest obstacles in the way of hemp research is the lagging speed of other industries in response to the crop’s legalization.

“When I try to purchase seed from suppliers, very few of them are willing to process the transaction with a credit card, even still,” Smart said.

According to Smart, banks and other associated industries still have not caught up with the times, which he said is frustrating when investors and entrepreneurs are lunging at the prospect.

But even though Smart doesn’t use CBD products himself, he sees the direct impact of the industry in many ways.

One big benefit: cannabis farming attracts the younger generations. Smart told The Sun that he has heard of many young people in New York who moved away from their family farms, but are now returning with renewed hope in the prospect of the hemp industry.

One such young person is George Stack ’19, who, upon his graduation in May, will pursue a Ph.D. while researching hemp genetics in Smart’s lab. Stack concurred with his future boss.

“What excites me most is the amount of interest in hemp from young people,” Stack told The Sun. “Legal hemp is new and exciting, and I hope that the excitement translates to more interest in plant science and agriculture.”

In between booths of breads and vegetables at the Ithaca Farmers Market, Trever Sherman of Ithaca Organics sells a selection of hemp flowers for smoking or steeping in a cup of tea. The Sherman family began growing the plant when they obtained their license last year and are now developing their own line of CBD products.

Another local company selling their wares at the farmer’s market is Head and Heal. Based in Cortland at Main Street Farms, the new business sells CBD oils and salves — even ones to quiet dogs’ barks and cats’ spastic spells. “Pets get anxious too!” the saleswoman, Erica, said.

Steve and Brittany Crispell are participants in the Industrial Hemp Research Program. His farm, Larchwood Farm, launched a Seed Start program this year to grow hemp seedlings to be sold and distributed to farms across the state.

On Monday, Steve Crispell said that they began moving 2,000 trays of hemp seedlings into their largest greenhouse. New York’s seasonal temperature changes mean humidity-loving hemp is grown in greenhouses for the majority of the year. The plant is one of the fastest-growing in existence, and under the correct conditions, can grow as quickly as four inches per day, according to a report from Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science.

“Our intent is to send out plants that are six to eight inches tall, maybe taller if we can, so that they already have a strong stable start,” Crispell said.

Even Cornell students are on the runaway hemp train. Annie Weiss ’21 is “very excited” at the prospect of beginning to grow hemp on her family farm in Onondaga County. “I’ve lived on the farm ever since I was a toddler and we’ve done it all — cows, horses, sheep, llamas, longhorns, chickens, corn, wheat, soy, you name it!” said Weiss. “But I think hemp is one of those hot commodities that will not only be a fun and new experience, but will hopefully give agriculture a new, more modern concept for all people.”

Chelsea Newton, manager of Your CBD Store on E. Seneca Street near the Ithaca Commons, was calm, cool and collected when interviewed by The Sun. But when asked about her reaction to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, she immediately lit up: “I was ecstatic!”

Newton explained that hemp enthusiasts had been waiting “forever” for national legalization, but stigma against the “hippie stoner culture” of cannabis derailed progress for decades. The difference between the two types of Cannabis sativa L, Newton said, lies not in their appearance, but their function.

“One is high in THC, which is the marijuana, and one is high in CBD, which is the hemp.” The difference in chemistry gives marijuana its high-inducing effect and hemp its calming effect. Inside the human body, CBD and THC both act on receptors of the regulatory Endocannabinoid system, but elicit different internal responses — CBD produces no psychoactive effects.

Only in their fifth month of business, Newton said that the success of Your CBD Store has already proven that there is a lively market for hemp products in Tompkins County. Customers — ranging from stressed students to senior citizens with crippling chronic pain — frequently return to the store to find relief in cannabidiol extract.

Currently, the store sources their product from Colorado, but Newton said they “are excited to see what happens with” the rapid growth of New York State hemp farms.

While Your CBD Store is reaping profits from the Ithaca market, and even the GreenStar grocery has begun to sell the products, Cornell Health is still catching up with the times.

Tracey Denardo, Cornell Health pharmacy manager, told The Sun in a statement that “The Cornell Health Pharmacy does not currently offer any CBD products. However, this summer we plan to engage in a review to determine whether we will start carrying medicinal CBD oil as a wellness product in the future.”

Denardo said that Cornell Health is responding to an increased demand from customers to sell oil to treat symptoms of mental health issues and other conditions including “anxiety, pain, insomnia, and inflammation.”

An email to the student body in March from Vice President Ryan Lombardi outlined updates to mental health reforms including “[enhancing] students’ access to psychotropic medication management services” by fall 2019. Whether those medications will include CBD products is currently unclear. However, if the pharmacy does decide to stock CBD oil, they will try to source their supply from local New York state vendors, Denardo said.

“There are thousands of documented uses for hemp, including plastic, textile fabric and medicinal oil,” Colleen Coleman, a recent entrepreneur to try to enter the fray, told The Sun. Coleman has founded two hemp based companies: CBD Helpz, which sells tinctures, gummies and more products made from the extracted hemp oil, and Hempire New York, Inc., which plans to create fabrics from processed hemp leaf fiber.

She is setting up shop a mile away from the famous Watkins Glen racetrack in Schuyler County, N.Y.

“I will have a 100 percent eco-friendly hemp textile mill here on the East Coast manufacturing athletic apparel for three major athletic companies. I have contracts in progress for that now and that is phase two of my project slated to start by March of 2020,” Coleman said.

Colleen Coleman’s unique patented process will refine the fiber until it is soft enough to be sewn into leggings, tops and other athletic wear.
Amanda H. Cronin / Sun News Editor

Colleen Coleman’s unique patented process will refine the fiber until it is soft enough to be sewn into leggings, tops and other athletic wear.

Coleman is newly licensed by the USDA to grow hemp as a fiber and grain, and is pursuing her CBD grower’s license. Her licenses are overseen by Cornell Cooperative Extension, with whom she is also a research partner.

“We can determine best practices for growing and processing hemp for green and fiber and CBD … gathering information such as when is the best time to plant, altitude, what yields the plants produce — so many different variables that will help in future crops and hopefully decrease the cost of planting,” Coleman said. She plans to plant her first crop in the beginning of June.

Not everyone is so sure of CBD’s medicinal benefits. Weill Cornell psychiatrist Dr. Richard Alan Friedman, M.D. wrote a skeptical New York Times opinion column in December following the passage of the Farm Bill, in which he concluded that “future studies may show otherwise, but at present CBD looks more like an expensive placebo than a panacea.”

Friedman’s skepticism may be appropriate — research on hemp is scant. The FDA’s current plan concerning the plant includes a public hearing on May 31, the formation of an internal agency dedicated to researching CBD products, adding an FAQ section on their website and sending warning letters to CBD companies who may be misleading customers on the products’ content.

The only CBD product currently approved by the FDA is a medication called Epidiolex, which is used to treat epilepsy. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies are currently underway to test CBD’s effectiveness in treating a host of conditions including Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and anxiety.

In 2017, the National Institute for Health began 26 projects, worth a total of $15 million, focused on CBD. And even before hemp was legalized for industrial growth nationally, New York Governor Cuomo showed his support for the crop by hosting an inaugural hemp summit in 2017, passing legislation recognizing it as an agricultural commodity, creating working groups dedicated to its development and delegating $10 million in grant funding.

One of the biggest barriers to hemp’s success, according to the entrepreneurial Coleman, is the lack of knowledge and “rampant” misinformation about hemp. “People think that cannabis equals marijuana. That is not accurate.”

However, Crispell claimed that New York is ramping up hemp research as a “test drive” for when marijuana is legalized. “[Hemp] looks like a marijuana plant, smells like a marijuana plant. They’re very very similar. The only difference is that the primary content that’s extracted is CBD and not THC. There are trace amounts; fractions of a percent. It’s so similar that you can build your framework for [the marijuana] process and just translate it,” Crispell said.

For the first time next fall, a course on cannabis — PLSCS 4190: Cannabis: Biology, Society and Industry — will be offered, taught by Prof. Carlyn S. Buckler, plant science. In an interview with The Sun, Buckler said that for the class, she “would like everyone to understand the breadth and depth of the cannabis industry and what the potentials are.”

Coleman argued that de-stigmatization through education was the best route. “I think it starts in institutions and schools. It’s sad that our physicians and our doctors are not more educated in the field. It’s not their fault, they only know that they’re taught.”

The novel nature of this commodity allows for confusion, misinformation and room for regulation. Time will tell whether the thin-leaved, bright green plant will live up to its high expectations. However, if the hemp industry continues to grow in lockstep with Cannabis sativa L’s typical growth rate, according to Steve Crispell, it will grow “like a weed.”