BY DALE AND DARCY CAHILL
The rich soil of the Connecticut River Valley, some of the best growing land in New England, is home to one of the country’s most lucrative crops: tobacco. The valley’s soil, weather and single-purpose tobacco drying sheds make this region a perfect place to grow tobacco, the leaves of which are used to wrap some of the world’s finest cigars. In recent years, international competition has driven down the price for shade-grown tobacco, and most tobacco farmers have stopped growing it. They are now looking for ways to diversify their farms to make ends meet. There is one crop with the potential to take the place of shade-grown tobacco, which has held firm for years. Cannabis.
The group of farmers best poised to take advantage of legalization of hemp are the ones with an existing adaptable infrastructure, the ability to repurpose equipment and a ready labor force. In the Connecticut River Valley, that group includes tobacco farmers — farmers who once produced the country’s most lucrative crop: cigar-wrapping leaves.
Not too long ago, shade-grown tobacco, grown along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts and Connecticut, was one of the most expensive agricultural products in the world. As recently as 2007, 1000 acres of shade tobacco brought in $30 million. Broadleaf, shade-grown’s heartier cousin, while less popular, also dominated the cigar-wrapping leaf market. That is no longer true. Competition from Dominican, Honduran and Ecuadorian tobacco farmers has almost eliminated shade-grown tobacco in New England. This season, only 100 acres were planted. That is a far cry from the 30,000 acres of shade-grown tobacco grown in New England in the early 1900s.
Given this dramatic economic crisis, it is not surprising that a group of Connecticut tobacco farmers have chosen to participate in the state’s 2019 hemp growing pilot program to see if hemp will be their newest cash crop.
Bryan Hurlburt, the commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, sees a promising future in farming hemp and is thrilled with the number of farmers who joined the 2018 pilot program. Just days after the bill passed on May 24, his office received 83 license applications, resulting in a total of 317 acres of hemp. He didn’t expect that many farmers to join the program and attributes its popularity to the department’s decision to make licensing inexpensive and free of legal roadblocks. One of his goals is to make sure that Connecticut farmers are poised to take advantage of this new commodity.
“Having a high-value crop would keep farmers on the land, be an incentive for farmers to put more land into production, attract new farmers to the industry, stabilize farm incomes, add business opportunities for agricultural support businesses, employ more people, support the opportunity for value-added production and generate more revenue for the state,” Hurlburt said.
One reason tobacco farmers have a distinct economic advantage in transitioning tobacco acres to hemp is that the crops both demand intense manual labor. Kathi Brown, now a retired Connecticut tobacco grower, said that one of her shade-grown plants gets handled at least fifteen times over the course of its growing cycle. Because of that, she and other tobacco farmers have long been in the business of hiring farm workers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Mexico to plant, tend and harvest their shade-grown tobacco. Over the years, large-scale tobacco farms like Brown’s built housing and small cafeterias for their employees. This ensured a reliable work force right there on the farms from year to year. With this infrastructure already in place, tobacco farmers are able to make a less expensive and easier transition to growing hemp.
Recognizing this advantage, Steve Jarmoc, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer in Enfield, and his son Owen have decided to try their hands at farming hemp. When asked why, Steve replied, “Who knows what is going to happen with this crop. Why not give it a try!” While most farmers in the program are growing a half an acre, the Jarmocs have committed to growing 50 acres — 125,000 seeds — of CBD hemp; with the goal of processing the plants themselves for CBD oil.
The Jarmoc farm includes over 300 acres, and both Steve and his son are just as much business managers as they are farmers. Before they plant, they want to know not only how to help their crops thrive but how to process it, who will buy it and for how much. Hemp is no different for them. It is a field crop that needs to be cared for and sold profitably.
In partnership with South Windsor tobacco farmer Ed Kasheta, the Jarmocs have committed twenty of their hemp acres to a research project in partnership with Tariq Farid, the founder of Edible Arrangements, and the University of Connecticut. The goal is to grow, test and process 20 acres of hemp for Farid’s newest company, Incredible Edibles. The end product will be a CBD powder that Farid will purchase as an additive to Incredible Edibles drinks and baked goods. So before even planting that twenty acres, the Jarmocs and Kasheta had it sold.
The Jarmocs have also invested in processing equipment that will allow them to process their plants for CBD oil right there on the farm. This lowers transportation costs and eliminates the risk of finding themselves at the end of a season with no one to process their hemp, something that is causing trouble for other hemp farmers this season.
Becky Goetsch, site manager of Running Brook Farms in Killingsworth, Connecticut also joined the pilot program this spring. She was the fourth farmer in Connecticut to receive her license and is excited about the new revenue possibilities. Though not a tobacco farmer, as a greenhouse grower with a garden center, she too sees potential for a low-cost conversion.
“The synergy with our independent garden center is phenomenal as far as growing cycles,” she said.
Just as her annuals leave the greenhouses, she plants her hemp seedlings. Double use and repurposing guide many of her decisions as she adds hemp to her crops. Running Brook Farms’ two acres of hemp will be harvested and sold to produce CBD oil. Goetsch says she also foresees a time when Running Brook Farms can supply other farmers with dependable and field-tested hemp seeds and seedlings.
For Goetsch, the trickiest part of entering the hemp market is not so much the agricultural challenges but negotiating the complexities of the hemp industry. While the pilot program offered her a huge leg up, with site visits, educational seminars and affordable licensing, it did not prepare her for finding reliable genetics, processing her plants or, ultimately, determining who she can rely on for legitimate advice. Despite these challenges, she has every intention of growing more hemp next year. She particularly likes growing a crop that does not have to compete with big box stores. At least not yet!
As with being a good business manager, hemp farmers who can determine what the next hemp-driven market will be are ahead of the game. Hemp’s behind-the-scene ancillary markets are booming, and new ones emerge every day. The ancillary cannabis market includes a long list of ways to profit from hemp, including packaging, security, software, legal assistance and more.
Until their hemp crop is harvested, processed and sold, the Jarmocs cannot yet predict the outcome of their hemp pilot program, but they think that it looks pretty good. Unfortunately, they will not be able to repurpose their valuable tobacco sheds, scattered through their fields, to dry their hemp. With the help of consultant Joe Veldon and a Colorado-based hemp consultancy, they learned that their tobacco sheds are not considered “clean” enough for drying hemp that will be used for medicinal purposes. Instead they will dry their hemp in a huge warehouse and are working with Carrier, a national air conditioning, heating and refrigeration company, to build a humidifier specifically for drying hemp. Owen says that the humidifier will be the size of a tractor trailer.
The other reason the Jarmocs are unable to use their tobacco sheds to dry hemp is that, thanks to an unexpected ancillary CBD market, they need the sheds to dry their broadleaf tobacco. This time, however, their tobacco leaves will be bought to wrap CBD cigars, one of the new smokable ways to ingest CBD hemp. This unexpected and welcome boon for Connecticut’s tobacco farmers will buoy bottom lines across the tobacco and hemp industries. Hemp looks like it may well be a cash crop worth considering.
Darcy and Dale Cahill live in Connecticut.