By RUSSELL JONES
“Our secret’s out,” grinned Sam Markowski as he surveyed a dirt field full of different farm equipment. “We’re growing hemp up here in Pittsford.”
A close relative of the marijuana plant, hemp looks and smells just like it, but is absent the mind-altering chemicals found in its plant cousin. Hemp also has a wide variety of uses, most notably of late as the main ingredient in CBD products.
For the Markowski’s, the decision to plant hemp came down to one thing. “We wanted the land to stay in the family,” he said. “We didn’t want to have to break up the land and sell pieces of it.”
Markowski said he had been growing organic corn on just over 100 acres of farmland, originally a dairy that his family has owned for about a century. He had been growing corn there for the last seven or eight years and the land had been leased out to local farmers for hay and corn in prior years.
Two years ago, the price of corn dropped and the demand for the corn was not high enough to continue. If he did not find an alternative, the fields would have lain barren and eventually been sold off in pieces.
So starting last year, they began experimenting with a new cash crop.
“Last year we planted 40 acres of hemp,” Markowski said. “This year we’re planting 100.”
But growing hemp is not the same as growing corn and he is learning from mistakes he made his first year growing hemp.
“We pay the highest prices for the best lessons,” the 64-year-old farmer said. “This year we’re using the plastic mulch, last year we didn’t.”
The plastic mulch is a layer of plastic that goes down on the soil to prevent weeds from overtaking the hemp while it is in the early growing stages. There is also an irrigation drip line under the plastic.
The plants themselves are started in a greenhouse at Wood’s Market Garden until they grow between six inches and a foot tall. Once they are ready, they are planted using a water wheel planter.
The large metal wheel rolls along the plastic and about every four feet a spike on the wheel punches into the plastic and fills the hole with water, creating a slurry into which the plant’s root ball is shoved by a worker sitting on a chair hanging inches above the ground at the back of the tractor.
Markowski said there was a lot of expense involved upfront, however.
“Good seeds are about a dollar apiece,” he said, “and we’re planting 150,000, so you can see how quick that can add up.”
The farmer, who also owns Markowski Excavation, added he was lucky to have the equipment that he does, something other farmers may not have on hand.
On top of that, there is also the cost of labor to think about. The process for growing crops such as wheat or corn have been mechanized over the years to require as few people as possible, but hemp is still largely planted by hand and all the harvesting is done by hand, as well.
“It takes six people on the back of the planter,” Markowski said. “The tractor goes one mile per hour, which doesn’t sound very fast, but if you only have three planting it seems very fast trying to fill the holes.”
SHAW WORKING IN THE FIELD
Markowski has a new summer intern to help shove the young plants into the soil, though. Butch Shaw, state representative of Pittsford-Brandon-Sudbury, has volunteered to help with the operation for the summer.
“When I was campaigning this past year, I said that we should look at ways to help the agriculture industry,” Shaw said. “Help them do something different than milk and hay.”
Shaw said that growing unorthodox crops such as barley, hops and hemp could be the new future for some farmers.
The politician turned farmer for the summer said he originally did not vote for allowing hemp to be grown in the state.
“We got a letter from the federal government the day we voted to allow it,” Shaw said, “that said if we allowed growing hemp, they would come take the farms away. So, I didn’t vote for it.”
He changed his mind about the issue after Congress passed the 2018 farm bill and the president signed it, which dropped hemp as a federally controlled substance. Now, he is learning everything he can about this new cash crop by getting out in the fields and getting dirty.
Markowski said he is trying to get all the work he can out of Shaw. To begin, he’s had Shaw planting hemp but there’s much more to do before harvest.
“We’ve still got a lot of planting to do and irrigation after,” Shaw said. “There is just so much that goes on with the process. I’ll be interested to see if the market stays as bullish as it has been.”
The market in Vermont has indeed been bullish regarding hemp. According to Hemp Industry Daily, the going price for one pound of dried flowers or buds for state farmers is $100. States like North Carolina and Colorado are reporting prices of $35 per pound and in Nevada prices are a whopping $200 per pound of flower.
So while the cost can be prohibitive upfront, the return on the investment could offer farmers hope when other crops are down in value.
Hemp is a versatile plant and can be used to make CBD-infused products, clothing, paper, bio-fuel and many other things, but to Sam Markowski, it’s being used to keep the farmland in the family.