1.12.2018 – Farm to Plate and an Update on Hemp

This week at the State House, we had several agriculturally-related events. Two were cannabis-related and one was the annual report and presentation on the Farm to Plate (F2P) Initiative. For the last several years, I have written frequently about F2P because it has been such an incredible success and this year was no exception.

F2P was signed into law during the Douglas Administration in 2009. It prospered during the Shumlin Administration and is supported by the Scott Administration. In other words, it has stood the test of time and politics.

When F2P began, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) was tasked with and conducted an exhaustive public engagement process that resulted in a ten-year strategic plan, which was released in 2011. The F2P Strategic Plan focused on how to strengthen Vermont’s food system. As the 2017 F2P Annual Report says “In order to implement such an ambitious plan, VSJF formed the Farm to Plate Network in the Fall of 2011 – comprised of over 350 farm and food sector businesses, nonprofits, institutions, and government agencies from across the state. Farm to Plate Network efforts seek to advance new ideas, fix bottlenecks, reduce unnecessary duplication of similar programs, and open new markets for Vermont products in a coordinated fashion. The Network creates the space for strategic conversations and action across multiple stakeholders and audiences to make systematic food system change that no one organization can accomplish alone.”

The original premise was that if we could double the consumption of Vermont-produced products over the course of 10 years, we would increase economic output and create 1,500 to 1,700 jobs during the same time period. The job creation goal was accomplished very quickly and from 2009 to 2016, a total of 6,400 jobs were added to the farm and food economic sector for a total of 64,000 jobs in that sector. According to 2014 data, Vermonters spend $189 million on local food products every year. A bit of good news is that food insecurity in Vermont households has dropped from 13.6% in 2009 to 11.4% in 2015.

The work done by F2P has been extremely important to help inform the investments made by the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Both initiatives are strongly supported in the Legislature because they are highly effective in all counties in Vermont and are evaluated by Results-Based Accountability standards.

On Tuesday afternoon the State House cafeteria was the scene of the “Cannabis in the Capitol Education Fair”. Several years ago, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee worked very hard to legalize the production of industrial hemp. The bill passed and was signed by former Governor Shumlin in 2013. Because growing hemp is still illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, people have been cautious about growing it but an increasing number of folks are giving it a try.

Part of the confusion about hemp, I believe, lies in the fact that both hemp and marijuana are of the genus and species cannabis sativa. It should be noted that to qualify as hemp, plants need to have very low levels (.3%) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a psychotropic cannabinoid and is the principal psychoactive constituent of marijuana – it’s what gets people high when they use marijuana. CBD does not have the same effect.

The event on Tuesday included some of the businesses that have grown up around cannabidiol, or CBD, which is a compound that can be extracted from hemp. It is believed that CBD can have very positive effects on a number of health issues including pain, inflammation, and nausea relief and anxiety reduction, to name a few. I am aware of a number of people who use CBD salves and edibles who claimed to have gained significant relief from their pain symptoms. Several of the companies that produce hemp products were at the State House to talk with legislators.

On Friday, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee got an update on hemp production in Vermont. We were briefed by Tim Schmalz, the Plant Industry Section Chief at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. He reported that hemp is being produced in greater amounts according to permit registration. In 2013, 8 registrants had 174.5 acres registered and in 2017 96 registrants had 580 acres registered. The numbers for 2018 indicate that those numbers will be surpassed but people are still in the process of registering for the coming growing season.

One of our witnesses pointed out some improvements that could be made to our registration and permitting system and suggested that we adopt a plan that more mirrors what Kentucky is doing. The cost to participate is higher in Kentucky but requires permittee research that is improving the quality of seed for traits such as low THC levels and better grain production. We will be taking a look at that possibility because it could make Vermont’s hemp industry more successful. It would, however, mean a higher fee, which the governor has said would not be allowed.

What is exciting about this discussion is the potential for economic development for our agriculture community. With milk prices that fluctuate in an untenable way, climate change, and extreme weather events, hemp represents a hardy alternative that could be very profitable.

Hemp is not new to the State of Vermont. It was grown in the 1800s and early 1900s and used to make rope, clothing, paper, sails, and food. The Fairbanks platform scale was developed to weigh hemp. Henry Ford experimented with using it for car parts and it was deemed more durable than metal.

Hopefully, the federal government will change its position on hemp and farmers will feel more comfortable cultivating it. Pushback from other large business sectors may be slowing that progress down but given the economic promise, this may be one of those situations where if the states lead, the federal government will follow.

This week the Senate concurred with the House changes to H.511 and marijuana took another incremental step toward legalization. It now awaits the governor’s signature. Possession of small amounts of marijuana will be allowed, as well as the home-growth of the plant.

Debate on the Floor of the House would have you believe that this was done quickly but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The bill has sat on the House calendar since May when time ran out for it to get through the entire process last Session without a suspension of the rules. There were complaints based on process that the commission tasked with studying the topic would be issuing its report in two weeks and why didn’t we wait? When asked, Judiciary Chair, Rep. Maxine Grad, made it clear that they were aware of the commission findings and there were no changes that would have an impact on the bill. Vermont will be the first state to legalize recreational marijuana without a referendum mandate.