COLCHESTER – It’s 2019. Hemp is now legal and it’s Vermont-grown.
In a warehouse tucked into an otherwise anonymous corner of Colchester, the St. Albans-based Colomont, Inc. has built a greenhouse sequestered into four rooms.
In each room, a host of plants at each stage of development are either neatly arrayed or clustered beneath the only lights in otherwise dark rooms. The most mature of those plants, with their handprint leaves and clumped flowers, are almost immediately recognizable.
It’s hemp, an industrial variety of the cannabis plant whose advocates – everyone from local consumers to Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture – herald it as a cash crop for struggling farmers, a source of alternative medicine and an industrial wonder crop whose byproducts could be used in everything from clothing and building blocks to artisanal food.
These plants’ cultivators are quick to point out these plants are different from their more notorious cousin – marijuana. These plants, they note, have a level of tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC – below the state- and federally-allowed limit and well below the amount found in recreational marijuana.
Instead, these plants are bred for other chemicals, namely the cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of cannabis sativa better known as CBD. Once CBD is mined, and if it’s up to Colomont’s standards, that CBD might be sold as a medicinal product or infused with another product.
“There are so many professionals out there, and they’ll all agree we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Colomont’s Stephen Trombley. “It’s the Wild West.”
Hemp is legalized
Before partial legalization in 2014 and full legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was banned under federal law. Drug laws provided only blanket bans on cannabis, including hemp in a ban tailored toward curtailing drug use.
While individual states would eventually carve out their own legal spaces for cannabis production and sale, hemp was peripheral as an agricultural product.
With the 2014 Farm Bill, states were allowed to legalize pilot programs. Vermont was one of the first to do so, establishing the statewide program that allowed Colomont its start in 2014.
Colomont is the brainchild of Chris Santee who was drawn primarily to CBD’s medicinal applications.
“The CBD oil has so many potential health benefits that I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to help folks – including myself,” Santee said when the Messenger met with Santee and state officials in Colomont’s Fairfax hemp field last summer.
“I had rotator cuff, and it looked like I needed surgery. There was tremendous pain in my left shoulder. I could not sleep on that side. I couldn’t raise my arm above being horizontal to the ground,” Santee said. “Now I have full mobility. I went out and played golf a week ago… and there was no pain whatsoever.”
The medicinal benefits of CBD are still disputed. Published research does, however, support that CBD can lessen anxiety in those struggling with schizophrenia and opioid addiction, and, earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved its first CBD-based drug: a prescription medication for treating childhood epilepsy.
Advocates cite other possibilities for CBD as medicine, with many referencing their own experiences with the CBD oils for managing pain and jumping into the industry specifically for that purpose.
Today, Colomont – its name an amalgamation of Colorado, where Santee first explored hemp, and Vermont – offers more than two dozen products on its site. During its busiest seasons, the company employs 80 workers to staff facilities and farms in Franklin County and Colchester.
The company also consults with businesses and farmers interested in joining the industry and sells seeds.
Since the state legalized the production of hemp, Vermont’s hemp industry has exploded.
As previously reported by the Messenger, numbers provided by the state show that, in 2016, there were 29 registered growers with 180 acres of hemp planted statewide. By 2017, those numbers grew to 96 growers with 580 acres of hemp under their watch.
By the end of 2018, those numbers had swollen exponentially. According to the Agency of Agriculture, there are now 400 registered growers in the state of Vermont with 2,600 acres of land dedicated to the crop.
For more on Colomont and Vermont’s hemp industry, read this weekend’s Messenger or subscribe online.