“This is a crazy ride, and every step is a learning curve,” said Christine Motyka, an adjunct professor who will teach the class. “If these students can get a view of the challenges … and understand some things that they can do right off the bat that will save them a lot of time and money, it will be well worth it.”
The three-part class, which begins Sept. 12 and will combine classroom lectures and site visits, will cover the basics of producing hemp and CBD, while tying in the history of the cannabis plant, the chemistry of CBD production and current laws pertaining to the industry.
“It really looks at what’s going on in the industry right now, the methods that are working, the methods that are problematic and future trends,” said Motyka, who, in addition to teaching in Vermont Tech’s horticulture program, has worked at the Champlain Valley Dispensary in Burlington and now serves as the director of horticulture at Meristem Farms, a cannabis production facility in Morrisville, Vt.
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is a chemical found in hemp and marijuana, both members of the cannabis family. It’s said to have the relaxing properties of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, without the “high” sensation. Thanks to the federal legalization of hemp production last year, along with the country’s growing familiarity with cannabis as a growing number of states legalize medical and recreational marijuana, the product has exploded in popularity in the past year.
In Vermont, where hemp cultivation became legal in 2013, acreage devoted to hemp production has more than doubled in the past year, according to Molly Willard, project manager at Vermont Tech’s Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems.
The growing interest among farmers in getting a piece of the CBD pie led the college to introduce the class, Willard said.
“This is certainly an emerging sector in agriculture in Vermont,” she said. “As an educational institution that works to make sure that we provide for those entrepreneurs going into agriculture, we felt that we should be offering training in the production of hemp/CBD.”
As of last week, 11 students were enrolled in the class, which is capped at 12 students to ensure a hands-on experience. For their $1,350 tuition, students will earn a certificate but will not receive course credit. The college could not initially offer the class for credit because of legal concerns related to the school’s federal funding, but Willard said the class will be offered for credit next year and as part of the Diversified Agriculture degree.
As Vermont Tech rolls out its program, the University of Vermont is offering an online certificate in Cannabis Plant Biology. That class is geared toward students in science programs and is theoretical rather than practical, Willard said.
Motyka doesn’t yet know anything about her students, but has talked to a number of people who are interested in the class: They tend to be people with agriculture experience and some land that they want cultivate, she said.
Though those conversations, along with enrollment in the class, indicate that interest in CBD production is high, Willard admits that the crop may not be the panacea some people hope it will be.
“I think it will have a place in Vermont agriculture … but I don’t see it replacing dairy or the ags that we have here now,” she said. “I think whenever you see a new agricultural product or sector emerge really quickly like this, there is an unknown as to exactly what that’s going to look like on the other side.”
Students in the program need to understand that success in growing and selling CBD is not likely to happen overnight, Motyka said.
“It’s chaotic right now. The markets aren’t settled. The processing capacity isn’t matched to the production very well,” she said.
The industry is also rife with confusion and misconceptions, Motyka said.
For example, growers already working in the field have discovered that the seeds they buy aren’t always as they were represented to be, she said. Nor is the plant as environmentally friendly as some people want to believe. The cultivation process is heavily reliant on plastic and petroleum, Motyka said.
And CBD is in a legal gray area. Although hemp production is now legal, the use of CBD in foods has not been approved by the FDA. Some states have banned the substance in foods, and in June, products containing CBD were pulled from shelves at the Hanover Consumer Co-operative’s stores in Vermont and New Hampshire after staff received a warning from the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission.
Overall, however, Motyka feels optimistic about the prospects for the plant and its growers. And she thinks educators play a key role in ensuring the industry flourishes and is accessible to everyone.
“(CBD) is perceived as medicine. If producers are being paranoid and not sharing a real breakthrough, it holds the whole industry back in producing the best possible product,” she said. “We want to shine the light of day on this whole industry and make sure that it stays firmly rooted in agriculture.”
Sarah Earle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3268.