Could hemp save struggling Vermont farms?

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to take hemp off the government's controlled substances list. That would mean farmers would no longer need permits to grow the plant.

Hemp does not get you high but its fibers can help make clothes, rope and paper, while hemp oils are used to make CBD products.

In the past, there has been confusion about the differences between marijuana and hemp. McConnell says the government is past that.

"I think most of the members of the Senate now understand it's two very different plants. There may be some continued discussion of that but I think most everybody over the last course of the current Farm Bill now understands that this is a totally different plant," said McConnell, R-Kentucky.

So how would hemp's legalization affect farmers here in Vermont? Dom Amato spoke with the Agriculture Agency and found out hemp is gaining popularity by the week. There are 150 registered hemp farms in the state growing the crop on more than 1,200 acres. And there are a couple of new farm registrations weekly.

The state hopes hemp is the cash crop that could save some of Vermont's struggling farms.

"Now is our time to develop this program and that can happen in a bigger way if the federal government gets out of the way," Vt. Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said.

Officials say Vermonters are ready to fully take advantage of legal hemp. But a federal cloud is hanging over their efforts to get loans and insurance.

"People willing to invest in infrastructure have been hesitant, so I think if you did see this lifted off the Schedule I list we would see some of that infrastructure being installed in the state and it would add a value-added crop for any farmer," said Cary Giguere, the agrichemical management chief for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

"For example, if they're in dairy and they can plant 15-20 acres, sell it to a hemp company and possibly help them become more viable," Tebbetts said.

"Because I think of societal, cultural, technological, environmental factors, there is sort of going to be a hemp renaissance," Eli Harrington said.

Harrington is a hemp farmer and co-founder of Heady Vermont, a media outlet focused on cannabis and hemp news from around the state. The company has put on various farmers markets and Vermont's first Hemp Fest last September. He says the excitement around hemp is high.

"Seeing all these new businesses and farms coming online, people making new products-- it's happening right now and there’s a lot of energy going into it," Harrington said.

He says most of Vermont's hemp farms turn out product used to make CBD, which doesn't get your high but advocates say it can help with pain and anxiety. Other hemp plants are used to produce rope, clothes and paper. One of the only downfalls is the plant's resemblance to its relative.

"The confusion between hemp and marijuana, and this means if you’re growing a big field of CBD hemp, it's going to look to the untrained eye like marijuana," Harrington said.

Officials tell WCAX News it's hard to say what Vermont's laws will look like if hemp is removed from the federal controlled substance list. There are already a couple of bills in the Vermont Statehouse regarding quality control and lab tests for hemp, much like the state did with maple syrup.

"We set our own standards in state and that sort of established the Vermont brand. It would be nice to see that happen around the hemp industry as well," Giguere said.

Vermont will need to find its own niche once the entire country can grow and produce hemp products. That's why these standards are being set now to be ready once the federal government acts.

Another way to measure the growth of hemp in Vermont-- the Agriculture Agency says the number of farms has doubled every year here since 2015.