FLORENCE — On a leisurely drive along Whipple Hollow Road in the summer, drivers will enjoy bright, rolling valleys of goldenrod, scenic mountain views and now aromatic, emerald fields of hemp.
Beginning this fall, Vermont Technical College students will be the first in Vermont to be able to learn how to grow CBD and CBG hemp from the staff at Northeast Hemp Commodities and earn a hemp cultivation certificate as part of their studies.
Patrick Fifield came from Fifield Family Farms in Middlebury, where he helped milk many Holstein cows, and after graduating from VTC and spending some time at other agricultural operations decided he would invest in the hemp business with his friends and founder Tyler Highter.
And after meeting VTC Professor Christine Motyka at a cannabis conference, Fifield agreed to collaborate with his alma mater and help teach blossoming young hemp growers how to grow Vermont’s newest crop along with Motyka, who will lead the course.
“She has spent the last few years working with CBD, but spent time working at the Champlain Valley Dispensaries as well,” said Molly Willard, project manager of the Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems, CEWD for Vermont Technical College. Willard said, “She’ll be using Patrick and the lab here for some of the opportunities.”
Creating the program was a challenge though: Lawyers advised against the program while industrial hemp was still considered a Schedule 1 drug along with THC-hemp, as it could negatively affect the federal funding for the program and the college if they were using those dollars for technically illegal activity.
“We were told don’t offer it for credit,” Willard said. “So it’s a certificate that, in the future, we will offer credit for. ... They would have the basic knowledge about greenhouse production of seedlings, how to set up a field for planting, the basics of soil science behind CBD, what they’re going to need for nutrients and also the pests and diseases they would be dealing with,” Willard said.
An on-farm visit is planned for September and the other two are scheduled for October, Willard said, and the program’s publicity has attracted almost a full roster of students, but because of traveling and material costs, VTC will only take on 12 students for the first certificate course, Willard said.
“With the growing of hemp taking a place in Vermont agriculture, we sort of follow that with our workforce education training,” Willard said. “I think people are really trying to figure out “what is the best way to start these plants? What is the best way to set up our field to be able to do cultivation and being able to spray for pests and diseases?” As that’s being figured out, the educational curricula are following that and quickly adjusting.”
VTC offers degrees in dairy-herd management, diversified agriculture and forestry and have working dairy and sugaring operations, orchards and forests, and are currently focusing on ways to reform dairy to support the struggling industry in Vermont.
In April 2018, Tyler Highter began Northeast Hemp Commodities after giving up his former business to start the company with a circle of his best friends, and in the winter 2018 they bought the land and greenhouses formerly owned by Vermont Hydroponics in Florence.
After traveling out to Oregon to see how professionals did it, they ended up buying seeds from a hemp farmer out there, but starting up wasn’t smooth-sailing: Their first crop fell to hemp mosaic virus, but their Oregon connection was there for them and the hopeful crew were sent replacement seeds free of charge.
Now the company, in its second growing season, is hauling in hundreds of thousands of pounds of hemp, and reworked the entire infrastructure of their new site this March to start fresh in the spring.
“We gutted the place completely,” Fifield said. “Tore sheetrock down, laid down all new plastic, just before we started using the soil blocker to start our seeds.”
Northeast Hemp Commodities currently employs around 30 full-time people and harvests from just shy of 200 acres of hemp, first drying the harvest in Fair Haven inside the Skyline facility, before shipping the harvests off to Middlebury and Pennsylvania for CBD extraction.
The crew said they plan to market the availability of their extractor to other CBD and CBG hemp growers, many of whom have already reached out to the team for possible collaborative opportunities, and have enjoyed a warm welcome from locals at their other growing sites in Rutland county.
“The one complaint we got (in Brandon) was because of the smell,” Fifield said smiling.