BOSTON — Local farmers see a growing hemp market as an opportunity, but observers say state legislation is needed to help farmers succeed.
Bills put forward by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, seek to add hemp to the list of crops available to be farmed on land protected by the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. In exchange for farmers’ commitment to protect their land from development, the program pays farmers the difference between the “fair market value” and “agricultural value” of land.
As high costs and other pressures have made it more difficult for Massachusetts farmers to make a living, they have increasingly looked to hemp as an option.
Yet, many farmers and observers don’t believe the state has created the conditions necessary for farmers to succeed in what has become a growing market on the East Coast. Fearing that neighboring states are outpacing Massachusetts, local farmers say it’s difficult for them to compete.
“Almost all the CBD you’ll find on the shelves at retailers in Massachusetts is not grown in Massachusetts,” said Lincoln Fishman, the owner of Sawyer Farm in Worthington.
The bills in the Legislature are identical to the one Pignatelli proposed in the previous session, which passed unanimously in the House before it did not advance in the Senate. Pignatelli expressed confidence that the legislation would become law this session.
“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have a much broader conversation this time around, even though this current session is going to be primarily focused on COVID,” Pignatelli said.
High costs and other pressures Massachusetts farmers face often force them to find creative solutions just to keep farming or to retain their farmland, said Sarah Gardner, a lecturer and associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.
“New York and Vermont have very farm-friendly states compared to Massachusetts, and we have higher development pressures here,” Gardner said.
“So [farmers] have a few choices. One of those choices is to grow hemp. It’s one of the few cash crops to come along in a long time,” Gardner said. “Research shows it can be more than $1 million to set up an outdoor marijuana operation. Most farmers don’t have that money at their disposal to set up something like that.”
Gardner, who has done extensive environmental work in the Berkshires, says that the lack of sustainable options available to farmers has driven a significant loss in the county’s rural farmland — an estimated 10,000 acres between 2002 and 2017.
Many farmers, said Gardner, have two jobs to provide for their families as it’s difficult to make a sustainable living as a strictly full-time farmer. It puts pressure on Berkshire farmers to sell their land or develop it for a more sustainable revenue stream.
“Everybody wants to live on farmland because it’s beautiful and there are beautiful views and it’s in a more rural area, and you can build a large house. But this practice of developing farmland for low-density residential development is the primary cause of farmland loss in New England,” Gardner said. “I’d say we’re on the cusp of an agricultural crisis.”
The APR program, a voluntary initiative meant to protect land the state considers valuable, provides an alternative to development. But the lack of clarity from the state on how land in that program can be used has left farmers across the state wary of entering.
“If you can tell us the rules, we can abide by them, but we’re really left in limbo right now. We don’t know what we can do, what we can’t do, which also impacts do I grow it? You know, down to simple things,” said Jacob Zieminski, president of CAVU Hemp in Cheshire.
“No one really knows what next season is going to bring in terms of particularly direct consumer sales, like at a farmer’s market or sales to restaurants, because no one really knows what the restrictions will be from the state in terms of opening the businesses up,” said Margaret Moulton, executive director for Berkshire Grown.
Some come to question their decisions to enter the APR program.
“So many farmers who thought they were doing the right thing by putting their property into APR are now being limited because of it. And that’s been a sort of a counter-intuitive restriction because the APR was intended to protect farmland and keep it in farm production,” said Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, who filed the House bill along with Pignatelli.
Though hemp is seen as a valuable market crop, farmers must burn the crop if the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, rises above levels allowed by their license. That can happen if the weather gets too hot.
The state also required hemp growers to process their crops at in-state facilities, although the infrastructure wasn’t there to accommodate the demand.
“They wanted us to sell it to processors in Massachusetts, but there really weren’t any,” Fishman said, “and it wasn’t even clear why anyone was even getting it processed, like who was going to be sold to.”
Despite the revenue that could be made through hemp, some feel that state policy and regulatory uncertainties have pushed small farmers out of the market.
“I hope that there are people at the state level looking at what other states are doing and trying to figure out how to make this industry benefit small farmers. In 2019, there were seven licensed growers in the towns around here, and now I think we’re the only one left,” Fishman said.
Fishman and others expressed concern that the longer the state delays passing legislation to promote hemp growth, the higher the likelihood of people coming into the state with millions of dollars to spend and cornering the market.
“I would predict that five years from now there’s a few companies with many millions of dollars to spend who basically control the hemp industry in Massachusetts,” Fishman said.
Despite some challenges, Hinds and Pignatelli expressed their intent to push for their respective bills this session, citing interest from other legislators and the economic benefits for the Berkshires and other rural communities.
“We’ve seen serious implications on town budgets where there are marijuana shops emerging throughout the county,” Hinds said. “We’re in a situation now where the Senate has passed it multiple times, the House has passed it, the governor is supportive, the commissioner for agriculture is supportive, the local farmers who are impacted are supportive. And so we really need to just get this done, and I’m encouraged that this’ll be the year we do it.”