Hemp was supposed to be the next big thing for Maine farmers, an easy-to-grow cash crop capable of fetching as much as $250,000 an acre when sold for CBD, the non-psychedelic derivative of cannabis that can now be found in almost every prominent wellness product line in the world.
But after three years of rapid expansion, Maineâ€™s emerging hemp industry has all but collapsed before it even had a chance to mature, the victim of a flooded national market, unfavorable federal regulations, a resulting price drop, bad business deals and a gold-rush mentality. Novice and veteran farmers alike are sitting on barns full of product they canâ€™t sell and millions of dollars in debt.
Some of Maineâ€™s biggest growers literally bet the farm on hemp, and lost.
Last year, John Blackâ€™s New England Hemp Institute was the biggest hemp producer in Maine, with multiple grows accounting for a third of Maineâ€™s licensed harvest. He preached the hemp gospel at local grange halls, imported farm equipment from Italy, and cut deals to purchase other farmersâ€™ harvests. He was in a hurry to scale up before the hemp conglomerates came to Maine.
Last month, Blackâ€™s farm was sold off at auction, piece by custom-made piece, at the insistence of anxious investors.
â€œEvery day we hear the same thing: â€˜I told you so, I told you so, I told you so,’â€ said Blackâ€™s wife and business partner, Corey, who said the business failure was too painful to talk about in detail. â€œâ€˜You shouldnâ€™t have gone so big. You shouldnâ€™t have bought that cropper. You shouldnâ€™t have done this, or this, or that.â€™ Itâ€™s been a terrible experience for us.â€
Hemp has a long history in North America, introduced in 1606 and grown for rope and paper by the likes of George Washington. It was outlawed in 1937, lumped in with marijuana. It began to creep back into production, first for a brief period as fiber during World War II, then as dietary supplements in the early 2000s. Maine launched its state hemp program in 2015.
In the first year of what was originally a pilot program, two Maine farmers grew a quarter acre of hemp between them. As public demand for anything with CBD in it soared, so did the wholesale value of CBD-rich hemp. In 2019, four years after the launch of the state program, 181 Maine farmers planted 2,081 acres of hemp â€“ a 13-fold increase in the stateâ€™s potential harvest.
But last year, only 111 Maine farmers obtained licenses to grow 211 acres of hemp. Many of those fields were never planted at all.
For example, in 2019, Canadian-owned Future Farms Technologies harvested 20,000 pounds of CBD-grade hemp from its 120-acre farm in Amity and a 100-acre leased farm in Hersey. This year, it didnâ€™t even apply for a license to grow hemp in Maine. In August, Canadian authorities ordered a ban on trade of the companyâ€™s securities for failure to file audited financial statements.
TOO MUCH SUPPLY
Maine hemp farmers arenâ€™t alone. Even those big conglomerates that Black believed were about to corner the U.S. hemp market are declaring bankruptcy. Why? According to New Frontier Data, a cannabis market research firm, the market fell victim to that most basic rule of economics: supply and demand.
American farmers have rushed to plant hemp since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the crop and firms such as New Frontier estimated the U.S. CBD market would likely hit $2 billion by 2023. In 2020, they planted about 138,000 acres, more than double what was planted five years ago. As a result, prices for raw CBD biomass, or usable hemp, have plummeted by about 83 percent.
As a result, many of Maineâ€™s hemp farmers groan as they admit they are still sitting on some of their 2019 harvest and donâ€™t yet know what theyâ€™ll do with their 2020 harvest. Some joke that theyâ€™ll use it as firewood. Others say they will try to sit out the rush of the most recent harvest and slowly turn it into CBD oil in batches, maybe in the spring, when or if the national glut subsides.
Not every farmer has risked as much, or lost as big, on hemp as the Blacks, but many of those that remain and plan to grow again next year say it is the industryâ€™s distribution system, and not the local production methods, that must change if Maine hemp is to survive. Finding a reputable buyer willing to pay a fair price is cited as the biggest challenge by many farmers.
â€œWe have lost buyers, even contracted ones, every single year,â€ said Colleen Maguire, who grows hemp at Silver Highlands Farm in Plymouth. â€œNow, we donâ€™t even bother with the contracts because it means very little if a buyer ghosts. Iâ€™m not surprised there are large numbers of farms and companies abandoning hemp. It has become a labor of love and pure bullheaded stubbornness.â€
For Ben Edwards, a hemp farmer in Machias, survival has meant moving into product development and direct-to-consumer sales.
â€œItâ€™s ridiculously expensive, and not what Iâ€™d planned on doing, but I think itâ€™s the only way to survive in hemp,â€ Edwards said. â€œI donâ€™t think Maine is ever going to be a commodity wholesale producer of hemp. Our cost of production is too high, due to weather and labor costs. We have to stay small and specialize, and build customer awareness of our locally made craft products.â€
His product line is aimed at two distinct uses: smokeable hemp and wellness-related tinctures and salves. His flower and pre-rolls are a favorite among former medical marijuana patients looking for a quick hit of pain relief without the high from a THC-heavy marijuana. Edwards advises customers to think of his tinctures and salves as a kind of daily supplement.
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 14 percent of Americans polled have used CBD â€“ 40 percent of them for pain and 20 percent for anxiety.
NOWHERE TO SELL
Edwardsâ€™ operation, Schoppee Farms, is the flip side of the agricultural tortoise-and-the-hare story. In 2019, Schoppee planted just 10 acres, a modest trial run that didnâ€™t even land it among Maineâ€™s top 20 producers. In comparison, Black planted 842 acres. State records show three other farmers boasted triple-digit acreage in 2019.
But that was also the first year that farmers such as Black and Edwards had to compete against farmers across the country. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp, drawing in hundreds of new farmers eager to cash in. The resulting glut sent prices tumbling. The guys that bet big lost big, while small farmers, such as Edwards, lived to grow another year.
It hasnâ€™t been easy. He has had buyers back out of deals, endured a number of thefts, and grew his first plants too big, forcing his crew to use chainsaws to harvest them by hand. Now he makes and sells his own products, pays a retired veteran to manage farm security and grows smaller plants spaced farther apart for an easier harvest with less chance of mold or mildew.
This year, Edwards doubled his acreage, planting 20 acres of hemp on the 65 acres of coastal farmland that has been in his family for eight generations. That makes him Maineâ€™s largest remaining hemp grower, something so unlikely after the growth trend that has characterized the marketâ€™s trajectory to date that even Edwards himself didnâ€™t realize it.
Edwards is quick to put his success in context. Schoppee Farm has stayed afloat while others have not, but it has yet to actually turn a profit. But only one of those farmers who planted triple-digit spreads in 2019 was still growing commercial hemp in 2020, state records show. That farmer got a license to grow a single acre.
The financial collapse of the buyer who had promised to buy Outfield Farmsâ€™ hemp crop in Farmington at the start of the season forced ninth-generation farmer Michael Recco to pay a private extraction lab to turn his harvest into CBD oil so they could make their own CBD tinctures, capsules, topicals and edibles. The e-commerce platform will go live early this year.
â€œIf we are able to sell our hemp products direct to consumers and larger wholesalers, weâ€™re hopeful we will see a profit,â€ he said.
Corn farmer Ralph Caldwell of Turner was one of many farmers who called it quits on hemp. He claimed a buyer talked him into planting hemp back in 2018 with promises of easy money â€“ $250,000 an acre compared with the usual $600 an acre that Caldwell grosses on corn. To the 77-year-old, it sounded like an easy way to repay about $175,000 in outstanding farm cooperative loans.
â€œIâ€™ve been a crop farmer for six decades, so I can grow anything,â€ Caldwell said. â€œFirst year, I had a big, beautiful crop of hemp. But with hemp, the problem isnâ€™t in the growing, itâ€™s in the selling. I had a business partner who told me heâ€™d take care of that part of it for me, that heâ€™d buy it himself for a good price, but he left me high and dry come harvest.â€
LOSSES AND LAWSUITS
Caldwell tried to sell his second harvest himself but didnâ€™t realize how much it would cost to get it ready for market. He had to hire 15 people at $14 an hour, plus room and board, to harvest the big plants and hang them to dry in a rented, heated building. Then he had to buy $300,000 in equipment and a large quantity of ethanol at $50 a gallon to extract the much-ballyhooed CBD oil.
At the end of two growing seasons, Caldwell has sold just $6,000 in oil. The 77-year-old now owes his co-op about $900,000.
â€œI was a babe in the woods,â€ he said. â€œI kept trying to make my money back and ended up digging a bigger hole. My father used to tell me, â€˜If you get up early and work hard and donâ€™t make a lot of stupid mistakes, youâ€™ll do all right. If you try to get rich quick, you probably wonâ€™t.â€™ I should have listened.â€
His former business partner, Eric Mitchell of Livermore Falls, blames the contentious breakup on Caldwellâ€™s stubborn refusal to listen to Mitchellâ€™s advice on growing hemp for CBD biomass. To Caldwell, bigger was better, said Mitchell, but it is the CBD level of a hemp plant that matters when growing a crop destined for the wellness market.
Mitchell claims he would have bought Caldwellâ€™s 2018 crop if the harvest had hit the 5 percent CBD threshold agreed upon at planting. Anything lower than that and it would be unusable in the wellness market, said Mitchell, a retired Army doctor who began prescribing CBD products when treating orthopedic patients and veterans for pain.
Instead, Caldwellâ€™s crop tested at 4.1 percent and 4.6 percent CBD in two separate tests run by independent labs. That is less than half of the CBD level achieved by the Oregon farm that sold Caldwell the seed that he used, said Mitchell. Mitchell blamed the difference on Caldwellâ€™s urge to grow bigger plants, and his preference for midseason use of nitrogen rather than phosphorus.
The dispute is headed to court.
â€œPeople want to think we cheated them, but hemp is a new thing, an experiment,â€ said Mitchell. â€œIf you do an experiment and it doesnâ€™t work out, thatâ€™s life. L-I-F-E. Not being able to monetize hemp was a big problem, made us all unhappy, but the farmers knew the risks, and some ignored my advice. It may look good, but it needs that CBD to sell. Without that, itâ€™s useless.â€