WHITEFIELD — With pruning shears in hand and a laundry hamper on her hip, Khadijah Tribble roamed rows of waist-high cannabis in search of the perfect hemp plant – robust foliage, no bugs, and enough flowers to make CBD lotions and tinctures for the elders in her church community.
The community activist made the six-hour, 300-mile round trip from her home in Salem, Massachusetts, just to visit Sheepscot General Farm in Whitefield, which on Wednesday opened the first pick-your-own hemp field in Maine. It is believed to be only the second publicly accessible hemp field in the U.S.
“When I heard about it from friends, I knew I had to come up,” Tribble said as she admired the orange hue of the hair that covered the plant leaves. “I had no idea how long it would take to get here, or what I’d find when I did, but I’m a big believer in this plant, and what it can do for us.”
She was one of about 50 people to buy a hemp plant on the first public pick at Sheepscot General Farm, which is owned by Ben and Taryn Marcus. The young couple bought the 180-acre former dairy farm in 2011. They grow strawberries and run a general store that doubles as a community center.
The couple decided to start growing hemp – the variety of cannabis that will not get you high – last year after the U.S. legalized its cultivation with the 2018 Farm Bill. In April, they were the first in line to get their state license to plant about 7,000 plants on about 3 acres.
Like all hemp, the plants grown at Sheepscot contain only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive part of the cannabis plant. The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry actually tests all licensed hemp grows to make sure they don’t bust the legal 0.3 percent THC threshold.
The couple picked four strains of cannabis known to yield flowers that will, if properly dried, cured and heated at just the right temperature, contain between 15 and 20 percent of CBD, or cannabidiol, the active ingredient in hemp that a growing number of Americans use to treat pain, insomnia and anxiety.
They harvested some of the first plants early this month, stuffing their barn with plants they plan to sell into the wholesale market. They will open the field for guided public picking on Friday, from 2-7 p.m., and then again on Saturday and Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with tincture-making classes on Sunday.
Prices run $35 a pound for people who want to buy branches only, which include the leaves, flower and stem, or $25 a pound for customers who are willing to cut down, buy and take home the whole plant, much like is done at Christmas tree farms across Maine.
Anything that doesn’t get picked this weekend will be harvested next week, Ben Marcus said.
“We always wanted to do a pick-your-own, like we do with strawberries,” he said. “But this has gotten a lot more attention than strawberries, that’s for sure. It was a great crop to grow, easy to do, but it’s not a crop I’d want to harvest by myself. It’s time consuming. But these people, they’re thrilled to pick.”
The number of hemp licenses issued nationwide has quadrupled since the passage of the Farm Bill last December, according to a report issued this week by New Frontier Data. Licensed cultivation hit almost 480,000 acres in 2019, a 328 percent year-over-year increase.
That is more hemp than the U.S. planted in 1943, at the peak of cultivation during World War II.
Farmers are responding to America’s obsession with all things CBD. According to the Brightfield Group, a national marijuana consulting firm, U.S. consumers spent $591 million on CBD products nationally in 2018 in the belief that it eases ailments such as insomnia, anxiety, depression and pain.
Hemp is a versatile crop. Its core can be used for construction, its skin for insulation and its nutty seeds for eating. But the CBD craze has made oil extracted from its flowers its most lucrative end market. New Frontier Data estimates 70 percent of the 2019 crop will end up as CBD oil.
Hemp in Maine has grown from a small pilot program in 2016, with just two farmers growing a quarter acre of plants between them, to 164 state licensed farmers from Elliot to Madawaska growing more than 1,700 acres, with another 1,400 acres licensed but not in production, according to state regulators.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing. Days after the U.S. Farm Bill was signed into law, the Food and Drug Administration warned that CBD was now a regulated drug, and thus can’t be added to foods without regulatory approval. Maine regulators ordered local retailers to stop selling CBD-infused foods.
Maine lawmakers quickly stepped in to fix it with new legislation, but the unexpected FDA decision and the resulting state directive caused confusion about the legality of part of hemp’s most lucrative market, infused foods, right before the deadline for Maine farmers to seek a state cultivation license.
MAKING THEIR OWN MEDICINE
Most of the people who came to pick hemp from the fields at Sheepscot General planned to make lotion and salves, like Tribble, but some planned to juice the fan leaves or freeze them and add a small handful of crumpled up leaves to smoothies. Some will use them to make a weak tea.
Wearing knee-high mud boots, John Valaitis trekked through the field with a farm guide to snip $38 worth of single hemp branches that he will turn into a tincture to reduce inflammation. The Waldoboro resident described the extraction as a relatively simple process of trimming, drying, heating and soaking.
“I’ve made simple herbal remedies before,” Valaitis said. “It’s very easy, really, and much more natural.”
Peter Rivard will soak his heated leaves in vodka to extract the cannabidiol before making his tinctures. The Gardiner resident described himself as a longtime hippie who has long known the benefits of both hemp and marijuana, and is glad to see both forms of cannabis becoming more publicly accepted.
“It’s an important thing, what’s going on here,” said Rivard, a life coach who makes and sells jewelry to cruise ship tourists in Portland’s Old Port, as he watched Taryn Marcus weigh his hemp stalks. “Look at all these people, coming here to make their medicine. I wanted to support this.”
Some customers were cautious, however, refusing to give their names out of fear that friends, pastors or employers might confuse their hemp use with a fondness for marijuana. A few covered license plates, worried that undercover police officers might try to document their visit.
A Virginia resident asked for a written receipt to confirm he had bought hemp, not marijuana, in case he was stopped by a highway patrol officer on his long, multi-day drive back home, where both medical and adult-use marijuana are illegal.