Hemp Round Table draws good attendance at PACC Paula Kane

Corey Black Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer of NEHI; John Black, Founder and CEO; and Vinnie Samolis, Director of Operations and Cultivation stand with their display. Paula Kane

PHILLIPS — Last Saturday evening, Phillips Area Community Center (PACC) Treasurer Winona Davenport welcomed everyone to PACC’s first informational program of 2020: A Hemp Round Table. Guest speaker for the evening was John Black, founder and CEO of the New England Hemp Institute (NEHI), who facilitated the discussion. Accompanying him were his wife, Corey, co-founder and Chief Financial Officer of NEHI, and Vinnie Samolis, Director of Operations and Cultivation. This event was organized with the assistance of the Phillips Public Library.
Starting with the basics, Black explained that hemp is a cannabis plant grown specifically for either CBD oil, other cannabinoids, or for industrial uses, typically involving the fiber and/or the seeds.
Cannabis plants contain two major cannabinoids. THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana which produces the high sensation when smoked or otherwise ingested, and CBD, the non-psychoactive compound.  Hemp plants grown for CBD extraction contain high levels of CBD and under 0.03% THC.
The use of industrial hemp in America dates back to the 1600s when it was brought here from China. The fiber was used to make grain bags and clothes. Hemp seed oil was used for such products as inks, paints, and lamp oil.
“Since then,” Black informed the gathering, “the uses for hemp have evolved into over 25,000 products…”, including health food, body care products, construction materials, bio-fuels, plastics, “and a lot more”.
The group also learned that hemp is fairly easy to grow. Different methods are required depending on the type of hemp. Fiber hemp is grown a lot like corn. CBD hemp is typically grown more like Christmas trees with plants spaced six feet apart in rows six feet wide.
Seed sourcing is one of the major issues for operations such as NEHI, and, Black believes, a major cause of failure for many farmers in Maine and across the country. NEHI bought seed at $1/seed, planted 1200 seeds/acre on 840 acres. That’s 970,000 seeds – and a lot of money for seed that may turn out not to produce hemp that meets the very strict requirements necessary for the extraction of high quality CBD oil.
Purchasing seed that is truly of the quality which seed farmers have advertised can be a tricky business. Though farmers receive a certificate of analysis from a third-party lab declaring the high quality of their source’s product, the fact is that those lab results have often been manipulated by the seed farmers and do not actually give a true picture of the entire lot. Hence, hemp growers may find as much as 50% of their crop unusable for its intended purpose. Additionally, hours and hours of manual labor will be required to salvage what’s left.
In an attempt to rectify this problem of seed sourcing and to diversify its own work, NEHI hopes, within the next couple of weeks, to produce the first hemp seed catalogue in the country. After collaborating with “good seed companies”, the plan is to publish a “Johnny’s Selected Seeds-type catalogue”.
“Anybody that wants to grow an acre or a hundred acres,” Black stated, “can open up this catalogue and find reputable seed.”
Another seed sourcing issue which NEHI hopes to improve is that option of purchasing smaller amounts of seed. In its new seed catalogue, rather than the current practice of mandating huge purchases of 5,000 or 10,000 seeds minimum, which in turn forces the planting of more acreage or joining forces with another grower, NEHI will provide the option of purchases as small as a hundred seeds.
“These are some of the things that we’ve learned and we’ve struggled with,” shared Black.
Through sharing their experiences and providing more and better resources, it is the company’s goal to open up this industry to the rest of the farmers in Maine and the country.
Black’s presentation continued with tips on finding a way to get started, including ideas concerning planting, irrigation, weeding, harvesting, which he referred to as “THE biggest issue of all”, and preserving the harvest.
Since the start of their operation in 2018, Black told how they’ve upgraded to a five-row planter; changed from drip irrigation to overhead sprinklers on trolleys that move across the fields; from plastic mulch to a five row cultivator, which Black shared, didn’t show up ’til the middle of July when the weeds were three feet tall.
“That didn’t work out so well,” Black said facetiously, “so we spent a lot of time hand-weeding, bush-hogging, and weed-whacking – we did three hundred acres like that…”
The moral of that story was that one cannot always count on the manufacturer or the distributor to get your equipment there on time. Black, however, seems to be one of those who sees his glass as half full…
“Fortunately for us, we have it here for next year,” he concluded. “and we’ll be able to jump right on and go.”
In 2018, some of the harvesting was done by hand, cutting down hemp plants down that are anywhere from 5 feet to 10 feet tall, cutting the branches off, and finding places to hang “these things” in greenhouses or warehouses for drying. Again, very labor intensive, a phrase used often throughout the evening.
“20 acres filled every place we could find in lower Franklin County,” Black continued, “so what we decided to do was buy a forage harvester.”
This improvement allowed the crop to be chopped like corn.
Another lesson learned, “You definitely want a Plan A and a Plan B and maybe a Plan C.”
In addition to drying their own harvest, NEHI provided the service for other farmers as well. At their plant in Wilton, once the site of the Wilton Tannery, which the Blacks purchased in 2015, the company offers top quality industrial hemp drying.
Packaging literally wraps up the process. NEHI uses state-of-the-art, high-quality industrial equipment to mechanically compress and bag the resulting biomass in square “moss bales”.
“We’re the only one in the country using this particular method,” Black said, “The mechanical bagging system is essential for ease of transportation and storage…That’s why we went the way we did.”
Currently, as the whole industry continues to be developed across the country, Black predicts that within five years, hemp will probably be grown like any other cash crop, such as corn or soy beans.
Black wrapped up his talk by speaking of the legal issues involved in the hemp industry, starting with the fact that not all states allow hemp to be grown, which has caused many issues with trucking and transportation, some of which he believes are “going away now” with new legislation being passed. The USDA has new rules coming into effect on October 31 which will more clearly define what can and cannot be done, which Black says, “We’ve needed for several years.”
“Anybody that’s thinking about growing or wants to grow,” he strongly suggested, “should get online to read through the document, which will give you a lot of good ideas about what you can and cannot do.”
Regarding the future of the hemp industry, Black said that “as of right now, we discourage anybody from getting into the hemp market with CBD oil.”
He explained that this particular market “is completely saturated…”, which has left a lot of farmers nationwide sitting on product.
On a more encouraging note, he added, “What we think, with all these 25,000 uses of hemp, is really exploring the market for some of these other items…finding something that no one else is doing…potentially replacing products that we currently have with lower cost and better quality products using hemp…create a process…
“There’s plenty of space in this industry for everyone,” he concluded on a positive note, “just need to figure out what that piece of the puzzle is…”
In their travels all around the country, NEHI’s representatives see a lot of the same issues and a lot of innovation to help in dealing with them. NEHI also works closely with MOFGA, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Department of Agriculture “to learn how we can sustain hemp in Maine”.
Following Black’s informative talk, a Q/A session, with queries directed also to Corey Black and Vinnie Samolis, filled out the rest of the evening’s program.
Check out NEHI’s website (http://newenglandhempinstitute.com/) for further information. Black and his colleagues are available to speak at other gatherings and will tailor their presentations to meet the needs of the hosting organization and its audience.
One final note came from Winona Davenport, who encouraged those present to add their ideas to the list being compiled for future informational programs at the Phillips Area Community Center.
4563: Hemp Round Table draws good attendance at PACC
4566: Corey Black Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer of NEHI; John Black, Founder and CEO; and Vinnie Samolis, Director of Operations and Cultivation stand witht heir display

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