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MILTON, NY — At the Hepworth Farms the hemp harvest is in. Farm workers hang the hand-cut hemp, delivered in bins and coded for variety and field, to dry on nylon netting that has been stretched from floor to ceiling in narrow rows. As soon as the prickly, sticky, plants are properly dried – they can mold only too readily – they’ll be removed and stored for further processing and sale. And the hoop houses will be filled again, and again.

Farmers throughout the Hudson Valley are harvesting the region’s first sizeable crop of cannabidiol, or CBD, hemp against a backdrop of uncertainty in virtually every aspect of the nascent industry. Issues abound with seed quality, cultivation practices, equipment, crop insurance, pesticides, harvest and post-harvest handling, processing capacity, state and federal regulations and, at every stage, labor, labor, labor.

But no issue along the learning curve of bringing a new crop to a booming market tops the supply-and-demand one:

“The market is flooded and prices have dipped pretty drastically,″ said Bruce Ludovicy, a retired high school physics teacher who has partnered with Brian Pawelski, an onion farmer in Goshen, to grow hemp. “We think they’ll rebound so we’re prepared to store a portion of our crop and hold on.”

“It’s $15 a pound (for hemp with a CBD concentration of 10 percent) for what was $40 a pound at this time last year,″ added Brian Ford, a dairy farmer in Westtown. “I’m two years in and I’ve made nothing.” As projected by Northridge Analytics in our July assessment probabilities and confirmed by Hemp Today.

Processing bottleneck

Hemp Today, an online newsletter, recently estimated that U.S. farmers are harvesting eight times as much hemp as their market can absorb despite the clamorous demand for CBD products. Hemp’s oil, high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, is being used in an explosive number of new food, body and health care products that claim to provide stress and pain relief. Unlike its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, the plant only contains a trace of the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, that causes a high.

“There’s a bottleneck in the market because the infrastructure for extraction hasn’t kept pace with the increase in cultivation in New York or anywhere else,″ said Maire Ullrich, agricultural program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County. “In Orange County alone, we went from 50 acres in 2017, to 200 in 2018, to 700 in 2019, with no exponential increase in processing capacity.” Issues Northridge Analytics determined in their 2018 survey on CBD extraction capabilities.

Some Hudson Valley farmers have obtained state permits to do their own extraction but aren’t positioned to do all of it just yet. The extra step is appealing despite the extra expense because ready-to-use oil commands a far higher price than dried hemp and because they envision developing their own product lines. Ford, for example, is already selling a Black Dirt-branded oil and Hepworth envisions selling a Hudson Valley-branded one.

Testing for CBD, THC

Hepworth Farms, one of the Northeast’s largest organic vegetable farms, relies on a biologist and a chemist at an in-house lab to constantly monitor the long-season crop for its CBD content as well as the optimum time for harvest – which is as soon as the flowers turn an amber color.

By state and federal law, the THC content has to be measured prior to harvest to prove that the crop isn’t marijuana – and illegal.

Harvesting the central and lateral flowers, the most potent parts of the plant, by hand preserves the crop’s highest possible concentration – and highest possible sale price. Mechanical harvesting, in contrast, captures large amounts of stems and leaves that dilute the concentration. The lab also serves Hempire State Growers Hudson Valley, the farmer-owned cooperative that sisters Gail and Amy Hepworth organized to give farms of all sizes the opportunity to cash in on the newly legalized crop.

Cooperative effort

“There’s an extraordinary amount of labor involved – hand-weeding, hand-harvesting - and I’d never have been able to do it on my own,″ said Rick Lawrence, the owner of a pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farm in Newburgh.

Brad Clarke, a retail and wholesale apple farmer in Modena, seconded Lawrence’s appreciation for the cooperative. The farmers recounted how they were supplied first with transplants of vetted CBD strains and guidance on growing them and then with crews to harvest the crop and whisk it away to dry, store and market. “Farmers can participate to the extent they chose,″ said Gail Hepworth, adding returns will be apportioned accordingly. “The important thing is to get them in the game so they can make the money they need to keep farming.”

Hepworth said the 30-member cooperative plans to sell the harvest in multiple forms to multiple markets. At the high end are the dried flowers that are used to produce a smokeable CBD product and at the low end are the leaves and stems that are used to produce fiber and paper.

“No part of the plant will go to waste,″ Hepworth said.

The cooperative has already instituted traceability and other protocols in anticipation of eventual U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation to produce CBD extract of pharmaceutical grade.

A labor-intensive crop

The crop has proved to be as labor-intensive as predicted, although local farmers admit they were surprised at just how “labor intensive” came to be defined at harvest time.

“I think everybody underestimated the amount of labor required to do it right,″ said Hepworth, who employs a sizeable workforce to operate the family’s 400-acre vegetable farm – and who is still harvesting vegetables.

Ullrich, a member of Cornell University’s new hemp team, said the team anticipated the state’s mixed vegetable farmers would be best positioned to capitalize on the hemp craze because they already had a workforce of experienced field hands in place.

“Remember each of these plants is the size of a small Christmas tree and there are 1,500 to 2,000 of them to an acre, so that’s a lot of material to cut and hang,″ said Ullrich.

Ford said a shortage of labor has forced him and his crew to work after dark to remain on schedule.

Hands versus machines

Ludovicy and Pawelski said they harvested about half of their crop by hand before renting a self-propelled corn harvester and crew from a farmer in western New York to harvest the rest. The partners have also invested in mechanical drying equipment to augment what they are hanging by hand.

“At some point, it becomes an economic decision, a balance between the cost of labor – which is a significant downside of this business – and the loss of quality as the crop stands in the field,″ Ludovicy said. “We won’t get as much for what we harvest mechanically but we still expect to do very well with it.” The balance between hands and machines could be a different calculation next year, when the state’s new farm labor laws require farmers to pay time-and-a-half after a 60-hour work week.

And next year will be here, Ullrich said, before many farmers have sold the bulk of this year’s crop. “Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they’re going to have to decide whether they’re in or out for next year,″ said Ullrich. “Because by January, they will have to buy seed.”

Northridge Analytics projects a 23 percent increase in hemp acreage nationwide with prices at $12 a pound, on average (for hemp with a CBD concentration of 10 percent). Our HEMP ROUNDUP REPORT will be available without charge on December 1, 2019.

** Except for italic type, content is by July Rife of Tomes Herald-Record.

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