Leaf peepers who flock to Vermont this fall to view the foliage will also see a new type of plant dotting the landscape, including 40 highly visible acres along Route 100 between Stowe and Morristown.On a Stowe farm that spans from the state highway to Stagecoach Road, delicate hemp plants are poking their way out of long rows covered in black plastic to keep the weeds at bay.
Stowe farmer Paul Percy has been planting corn there long enough that, for longtime commuters, it’s been somewhat jarring to see something other than corn sprouting up in the past week or two.
Hemp is a variety of cannabis that, unlike its sister plant known as marijuana, contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in pot that gets you high. There is a booming market for another cannabis compound, CBD, that won’t get you high.
Percy’s stepson, Mark Hovey, is running the hemp-growing and processing operation, known as HP Farms. His full-time crew includes himself; his son Kyle, armed with a master’s degree in biology; Bob Sabolefski, a maple syrup producer from Stowe; and Patrick Walsh, an experienced hemp farmer who is the main grower. According to Hovey, he started thinking small, maybe 5 acres.
“But, if you’re gonna do 5, you might as well do 10, right?” he said. “And if you’re gonna do 10, you might as well just go and do 40.” Later that afternoon, he and his small crew started planting several more acres on the neighboring Goodrich Farm.
Pat and Kyle marveled at how well the Percys and Goodriches had maintained their fields. Not a rock to be found in the tilled earth.
Percy, naturally, is the wise overseer, in and out in his pickup truck all day, partly out of curiosity, and partly to offer some advice.
“Some people tell me, ‘I can’t believe you’re growing that, Paul,’ because I ain’t a marijuana grower,” he said. “But there is a lot of uses for it, I guess.”
Fresh back in Vermont after 20 years in corporate America, Hovey, 53, is enthusiastic and has a sense of numbers. He and Percy went into the season with a business plan that satisfied the longtime dairyman enough to let his stepson take over one of his cornfields.
Hovey was mum about how much he expects to bring in with this year’s harvest, but it’s clear he expects this to be a lucrative crop.
“Put it this way, we’ll get net gross profits extending beyond what you put into it,” he said.
HP Farms has between 70,000 and 80,000 plants, more than half of them started from seed in Percy’s greenhouses. They purchased another 30,000-plus starter plants from Colorado.
The crops are still in their early stages, but already the locally started plants are twice as big as the ones from Colorado. He said shipping them shocks the plants, and they take a little longer to get comfortable in the Vermont soil.
‘Whole new crop’
About 5 miles to the north, on Fitzgerald Road in Morristown, Dwayne Lanphear and his business partner Chris Padula are growing 70 acres of hemp, part of an outfit they call Green Top Farm. This is Padula’s second year growing hemp; he grew about 20 acres last year.
Green Top’s plants are already thigh-high and might resemble dainty, delicate Christmas trees to the agronomically challenged.
Lanphear, now in his 50s, has been dairy farming since he was a kid, and he still has his L&L dairy farm running while he and Padula manage Green Top. Running two operations is about double the normal amount of work, but Lanphear said he’s used to hard work. And it’s not like he doubled his cattle count.
“Dairy farming, to put it bluntly, sucks. And it has for four or five years now,” Lanphear said. “Who would ever think that, in this day and age, you could do something in farming again that could make money?”
It’s a new crop for some, but for longtime farmers, it’s still just a plant. It’s not quite the same as growing corn or vegetables, but it’s not overly different, either. You still have to put in long hours in the longest days of the year, maintain your weeds, keep your soil and crops happy.
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