A Canadian company plans to launch a large, industrial hemp operation in northern Maine this year in the latest sign of burgeoning interest in the versatile yet tightly regulated crop.
Future Farm Technologies recently purchased 120 acres in the Aroostook County town of Amity and plans to lease another 100 acres for an operation that would dwarf all of Maine’s current licensed hemp farms. Future Farm also reportedly secured a lease option on an additional 1,000 acres in Amity, a town of fewer than 250 residents located south of Houlton along the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Maine began issuing hemp grower licenses in 2016 amid a national push to expand legal cultivation of a crop used in rope, clothing, skin care and other products. Although industrial hemp lacks the psychoactive properties of its cannabis cousin, marijuana, it is still tightly regulated by the federal government. And there is considerable uncertainty within the industry about the Trump administration’s attitude toward hemp and marijuana, which is now legal both for medical and recreational use in eight states, including Maine.
Neither a representative for Future Farm, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, nor the farm’s current operator, Derek Ross of the Massachusetts-based firm Cannatech LLC, returned calls last week from the Portland Press Herald. But in recent announcements, the company indicated it had plans to produce a non-intoxicating cannabis oil known as cannabidiol, or CBD, from the Maine hemp. According to medical marijuana users and advocates, highly concentrated CBD is sometimes the most effective treatment for some types of debilitating seizure disorders but is also used to alleviate symptoms in a host of other diseases or ailments.
“We are thrilled to be able to acquire this prime land to farm hemp as we will leverage our oil extraction techniques into the CBD business,” Future Farm CEO Bill Gildea said in a written statement announcing the 120-acre purchase.
Maine’s 2-year-old industrial hemp law requires farmers to apply for licensure annually and imposes restrictions on operations. For instance, the law prohibits hemp growers from knowingly using a variety of the cannabis plant that will produce more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the chemical that gets marijuana users high. Grow operations are subject to state inspection and testing. Hemp farm operators can also lose their licenses as well as any crops if testing reveals THC levels above 0.3 percent.
Amity Selectman Joseph Ledger was surprised to hear about the large hemp farm proposed for his town, which is largely composed of farmland or forests. Ledger was unsure how Amity residents would feel about the prospect, adding that the three-member Board of Selectmen opted not to pass any local ordinances regulating marijuana-related businesses until after state policies are finalized.
It was unclear Friday how much of the Amity land Future Farm planned to devote to hemp cultivation. But in November, the company projected the farm could produce $10.8 million (Canadian dollars) in revenues, based on an assumption of 1,700 hemp plants per acre on the 120-acre farm.
“With Maine’s current favorable economic climate for hemp in place, the company is moving aggressively to acquire more land and is in discussion with existing farm operators to farm another 200 acres of organic hemp on existing farmland in Maine,” the company said. Three weeks later, Future Farm announced the additional 100-acre lease with an option for up to 1,000 acres.
Maine’s hemp industry is still relatively small – just 30 acres statewide were used for hemp cultivation last year. California, by comparison, had an estimated 9,000 acres devoted to hemp growing, Oregon had 3,469 acres and New York reported 2,000 acres, according to the 2017 U.S. Hemp Crop Report compiled by the advocacy organization Vote Hemp. The only other New England state to allow hemp cultivation last year was Vermont, which reported 757 acres of the crop.
But the industry is growing rapidly, thanks in large part to a slight relaxation of federal hemp cultivation rules in the 2014 Farm Bill. Nationwide, 23,346 acres of hemp were cultivated in 19 states during 2017, up from 9,770 acres the previous year.
Maine’s industry appears ripe for expansion as well.
In 2016, the first year of legal industrial hemp cultivation in Maine, two organizations applied for and received licenses from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The department issued 33 licenses in 2017, ranging in size from a .0011-acre plot in Biddeford to a pair of 3-acre growing operations in Rome and Waite, according to figures that growers reported to the state.
Gary Fish, the state horticulturalist who oversees the industrial hemp licensing program, said all 33 licensees from 2017 have indicated they plan to reapply for 2018. But Fish said he could not predict how many additional applicants would come in before the April 1 deadline.
“I have no idea what kind of growth will occur,” Fish said. State rules do not limit the acreage of a hemp operation, he said, but the $50-per-acre license fee – in addition to a flat $500 initial fee – “is probably a bit of a deterrent” to larger operations.
Maine already has a large medical marijuana industry – featuring eight dispensaries plus more than 3,200 licensed caregivers – and is expected to have a vibrant, legal recreational market once retail sales begin. Retail marijuana operations, which were legalized under a November 2016 referendum, are currently in limbo because of political fighting in the Legislature and with Gov. Paul LePage, a vocal opponent of legalization.
Future Farm Technologies’ focus on cannibidiol could be risky, however.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies both marijuana and industrial hemp as Schedule 1 drugs – along with heroin and LSD – that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The DEA has maintained a largely hands-off stance toward legalized medical and recreational marijuana, although there is concern that could change under the Trump administration. Federal policy toward hemp and its derivatives – particularly cannabidiol – is even more murky, however.
The 2014 Farm Bill authorized universities and state departments of agriculture to cultivate industrial hemp for research as long as state law allows it. In response, Maine and dozens of other states began allowing hemp cultivation to varying degrees. But in a July 2017 statement to The Cannabist, a news publication that tracks the cannabis industry, the DEA said it remains illegal under federal law to produce or sell cannabidiol unless the entity is registered with the agency.
A federal court is currently considering a case, brought by the hemp industry, that could shed light on the status of cannabidiol and other marijuana extracts.
Hemp grows in a field in Eaton, N.Y. Maine first issued grower licenses in 2016 and the state’s industry appears ripe for expansion.