A Vt. company plans to process industrial hemp. Their first challenge? Convincing farmers to grow it
Over the past year, a pair of cousins bought two vacant industrial properties in two Vermont towns that have seen better economic days — a former grain mill in St. Johnsbury and a former marble factory in Proctor. The pair believe they have the right business to bring new life to the two properties: Processing industrial hemp.
But Vermont’s hemp industry has stumbled since the heady days of 2019 when it was first legalized. More than a thousand Vermonters grew hemp that first year. Last year, it was down to just 99. To be successful, the cousins and their company Zion Growers will need that trend to reverse.
When Travis Samuels was growing up near St. Johnsbury, he’d often see the boxy frame of the vacant E.T. & H.K Ide building, a former grain mill that looms over railroad tracks near the Passumpsic River. Nothing really seemed to be going on there, and he never gave it much thought. So a few years ago, when his cousin Brandon McFarlane suggested the two of them buy the building, Samuels was skeptical.
“I've seen this building my entire life. I know nothing has been in there. I know that it is, you know, low-key decrepit,” Samuels said. “Why would we want it?”
The Ide building is about 120 years old, there’s environmental contamination at the site, the hallways are dark, and the only way to the second floor is up a narrow, steep staircase. But, Samuels said, it’s structurally sound, and his cousin convinced him it has potential.
“It really is an amazing building. Just needs a little love,” Samuels said.
So in late December 2021, the pair bought the Ide building for $210,000. Nine months later, they bought another major property, the former Vermont Marble Company factory in Proctor.
Taken together, Zion Growers now owns over 130,000 square feet of industrial space. Some of the space could be leased out to other companies or used as makerspaces, the cousins said. But most of it they plan to use to process industrial hemp.
Such a business would not have had much promise up until a few years ago, when the 2018 Farm Bill changed the legal landscape for hemp. After decades of strict federal limits on the crop, the bill allowed farmers to grow the plant and transport it across state lines, with a number of restrictions and a good amount of red tape. But the potential market for hemp still faces challenges and misconceptions.
“Hemp is not marijuana, and that's one of the biggest, I think, hurdles that we're still facing,” said Jane Kolodinsky, an economics professor at UVM who researches the hemp industry.
Unlike its relative cannabis, hemp won’t get you high. However, it’s a versatile plant. It can be used to make textiles, animal bedding, plastics, heating fuel pellets, and much more. But since its cultivation was restricted for years, you won’t find many hemp-based products on store shelves.
After federal law changed, many prospective hemp cultivators expected the market to boom quickly. That caused a flood of growers to plant hemp in 2019, including nearly 1,300 in Vermont. But most weren’t growing the plant to turn into textiles or plastics. They grew it for CBD. A lot of it.
“What you had was a series of growers, who perhaps never grew hemp before, and decided that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Kolodinsky said.
“What you had was a series of growers, who perhaps never grew hemp before, and decided that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”Jane Kolodinsky, UVM economics professor
But there was no pot of gold. The market for CBD hemp was not nearly as large as some growers expected, leaving a huge oversupply. Travis Samuels and Brandon McFarlane, the pair behind Zion Growers, even got caught up in this bust. They worked with a farmer to grow a few acres of CBD. But when they couldn’t sell it, they pivoted, McFarlane said.
“As we, again, did the research, we kind of stumbled upon this other type of hemp, right? Industrial hemp,” McFarlane said.
McFarlane said he was impressed by the plant’s potential. But they found that one of the bottlenecks in the nascent industry was processing: Getting it from its raw form in a farmer’s field into a material that can be turned into clothes, fuel pellets, or plastics. So, the cousins decided processing would be their niche, taking the hemp plant and turn it into bales of fiber and piles of hurd, which looks similar to wood chips.
With the grain mill and marble factory in hand, the cousins have plenty of space for their business. What they don’t have much of? Hemp to process.
The total number of farmers growing hemp in Vermont has dropped more than 90% since 2019. And, according to the Agency of Agriculture, only one, lone farmer in Vermont grew hemp for industrial purposes in 2022. That poses a challenge for Zion Growers.
“I am more afraid that I have too many customers and not enough farmers,” Travis Samuels said, standing near rows of large bags full of industrial hemp seed in the Ide building, which he’s been trying to give away to Vermont farmers, with little success so far. Growers, he said, are still feeling burned by the CBD bust.
“Like, I'm coming up and I'm showing up with industrial hemp,” he said. “They're like, ‘Leave me alone.’”
He has to explain to farmers, he said, that industrial hemp is not CBD. He acknowledged he’s asking them to take a chance on a relatively unproven crop. And why should they fill up valuable field space with hemp, when they could plant corn, which just saw its highest price in nearly a decade?
Or, for that matter, why not grow cannabis, now that the drug can be sold legally in Vermont? In fact, more than twice as many cultivators registered to grow cannabis than CBD or industrial hemp in 2022.
Still, Samuels makes his pitch: He argues that farmers who plant industrial hemp now will be getting in on the ground floor of something big.
“This stuff is only going to become more valuable, plain and simple,” he said. “Whether or not we want to get on board with that, whether or not anybody wants to be a part of that, that is their decision. But this is happening.”
Farmers, however, may have a more conservative approach to getting on board with a new crop, said Heather Darby, an agronomist at the University of Vermont Extension. She said farmers tend to grow crops they’re familiar with, or that other farmers around them are growing. It’s hard to be the first one to make the jump to something new.
“Whether you're a kid and somebody's daring you to do something, you know, there's always those people on the front that are willing to just… take that risk,” Darby said. “And the rest of us watch.”
“This stuff is only going to become more valuable, plain and simple. Whether or not we want to get on board with that, whether or not anybody wants to be a part of that, that is their decision. But this is happening."Travis Samuels, co-owner of Zion Growers
Zion Growers appears to be ready to take the leap on the processing side. But for the hemp industry to live up to its full potential, others in the supply chain will need to follow, said Jane Kolodinsky, the economist at UVM.
“Everything from growing to manufacturing, to retailing, to consumer demand, just hasn't all gelled,” she said. “It's going to really take a concerted effort of all of those components for this market to work.”
So far, she thinks Zion Growers is doing it right. And if the broader industry can gel, they might be successful.
“Given that they're early into the market, and one of the few regional processors… there's a lot of opportunity for them being the first in,” Kolodinsky said.
Zion has big plans for 2023. They plan to begin environmental cleanup at their St. Johnsbury mill, they hope to buy their first piece of processing machinery this year, and they hope many more farmers start planting hemp.