ALBANY, N.Y. >> Eric Weber and Adam Prior hope to get in on the ground floor of a potentially lucrative new agriculture business.
They’re among the nearly three dozen people who turned out Tuesday for a workshop, hosted by state officials, to learn about the fast-growing industrial hemp industry.
A state law, which took effect earlier this year, allows people to apply for permits to raise hemp, which has an almost limitless number of end uses such as fiber for building materials, grain for food products, along with chemical applications for things like paint and batteries.
“Anything that helps farms be more sustainable is okay in my book,” said Weber, who runs a haying operation with Prior in rural Albany County. “Farms have been hurting long enough. They need as much help as possible. For our operation, we’re always trying to keep the cash flow going.”
Before proceeding, however, they want to investigate the costs, such as seed and fertilizer, and potential selling price for hemp, which they’ve heard might be three to five times higher than what they get for traditional crops.
“If it’s a low input-maximum output, obviously it’s something we could really look into,” Weber said.
“We’re going to make some phone calls and see what the processors have to say,” Prior said. “If the money’s really there, rather than planting rye on a new seeding, this seems like it could produce more money.”
Cannabis plants used for industrial hemp are the same species as marijuana, and are still a controlled substance. But just like there are different varieties of apples, the plants used for industrial hemp aren’t the same as marijuana. The key difference is that industrial hemp must have less than .03 percent THC content.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the mind-altering chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.
Crops raised by state-approved growers will be inspected about two weeks prior to harvesting when THC content is highest. Samples will be sent to state labs. Crops that fail the test must be destroyed.
People interested in growing hemp just apply to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets by Nov. 22. There is a $500 application fee and permits are good for three years.
However, every growing operation must have a research component. The 2014 federal Farm Bill allows state agriculture departments and universities to conduct hemp research pilot programs to study the growth, cultivation or marketing of industrial hemp.
In New York, Cornell and Morrisville State College are doing such work.
Until last year, only 10 non-academic growers were allowed. A new state law opens the market to anyone who applies to and is permitted by the state agriculture department.
“It’s not a very high bar to get the approval as long as you don’t have a felony or drug-related misdemeanor conviction, and you have a good research proposal,” said Tim Sweeney, agriculture department policy analyst.
Research could be things such as optimal seed density for growing hemp, fertilizer requirements or how it affects soil health. Growers must submit reports to the state at the end of each season.
The turn-around time for application approvals is expected to be fairly quick, so growers can plan planting operations, secure good quality seed sources, and find processors interested in buying their hemp.
Obtaining seed is one of the main obstacles to hemp production because there are currently no producers in the state, it’s quite expensive and highly regulated by the federal government. Both state and federal permits are required to buy seed, plus a federal permit for imports from international sources such as Canada and Europe.
“The next barrier is our overall lack of knowledge because we haven’t grown hemp in New York state for decades,” said Larry Smart, a Cornell professor of horticulture. “That’s just a matter of time and research.”
Cornell is just completing the second year of research trials both on-campus, and at 24 farms from Cattaraugus County in western New York to Orange County in the lower Hudson Valley.
The key to making hemp financially viable is convincing enough farms to grow it, and having enough processing facilities to buy it, Smart said.
There are at least five processors in New York state including three in the Capital Region — Hudson River Foods in Castleton, Ecovative Design in Troy and RAD Soap Company in Albany.
Hudson River Foods offers hemp milk, frozen desserts, protein substitutes and other non-dairy products mainly for vegetarians.
RAD uses 33,000 gallons of hemp oil per year to make soap. Oil now comes from Canada, but company officials would rather have local sources.
The core mission of Ecovative Design is development and marketing of environmentally-friendly building materials, such as fiber board, in instead of petroleum-based synthetics.
“There’s a company that’s making hemp oil-based house paint,” said attorney Peter Stavropoulos, of the Denver, Colo.-based Hoban Law Group, which specializes in cannabis issues. “From what I’ve heard its got better UV (ultraviolet) and mold protection and better thermal insulation properties. I think hemp really could be the next great industry for New York state. New York City is the state’s economic engine and you have smaller pockets throughout the state. This has tremendous potential, given the number of products that can be made out of it. We have some of the greatest markets on the planet in New York state. There’s no reason why we can’t have the greatest hemp market.”
Information from the state is available by calling 1-877-249-6841 or emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a related initiative, the state has made $5 million available for grants up to $500,000 for investments in industrial hemp processing facilities. Grants will be awarded through Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency.
For more information, log on to esd.ny.gov/industrial-hemp.