There are two buildings, still standing, in New Milford — one put up by J.S. Halbine, the other by Carl Schoverling — that for about 50 years were warehouses for the shade tobacco industry in the Housatonic Valley.
“Farmers would grow tobacco, dry it, then bring it to market, where they’d sell it and get paid depending on the quality,” said Lisa Roush, curator of the New Milford Historical Society.
“It was a cash crop,” said Bryan Hurlburt, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture. “You could be a dairy farmer, or grow vegetables. You’d grow tobacco to earn money to help pay for those things.”
Now, there is the question of whether hemp can be that next cash crop — a way for small farmers, part-time farmers, to earn some cash to subsidize their other operations.
It’s a whole new field. But in 2019 — the first year people could legally plant hemp in Connecticut — there were 82 licensed growers in the state, planting 39 different varieties of the plant on 150 acres of land.
This week the state will hold its first Hemp Conference and Trade Show in East Windsor, sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Farm Bureau, with participating partners that include the US. Department of Agriculture and the University of Connecticut Extension Service.
It is sold out.
“There are 200 people registered to attend and over 30 vendors,” Hurlburt said.
But because it’s such a new crop, there are huge uncertainties, especially on whether it can be worth the cost of buying expensive seed, cultivating it, then finding a market for its main product — its buds.
“It was a learning experience,” said Jeff Wentzel, head of the Connecticut Hemp Industry Association said of the growing season in 2019. “People were dipping their toes in the water. Most will continue in 2020.”
Hemp is Cannabis sativa, the same plant as marijuana, only with very low levels of tetrahydrocannibinols — THC — that gives marijuana its psychoactive qualities when smoked, ingested or otherwise snuck into the human body.
Because of its connections with marijuana, the U.S. government banned growing hemp for decades. It relented in 2018 and Connecticut opened up its fields to hemp the following year.
Hemp has a long and honorable history in the United States. Our first three presidents — Washington, Adams and Jefferson — grew it. The ropes that raised the sails on the US Constitution — Old Ironsides — were made of hemp.
People can eat its seeds. Its stalks can be made into a durable fabric. Its fibers are tough.
And today, the cannibinoids in its buds are used to make CBD oil, sold as a supplement for a variety of treatments — as an anti-seizure medication, to relieve pain, to reduce anxiety and stress and to help fight insomnia.
Berry Sherr, owner of the Chamomile Natural Foods store in Danbury, said he has 12 to 15 customers who regularly buy CBD oil there.
“Is there an interest? Absolutely,” Sherr said.
Connecticut may be a good place to grow hemp. It needs sun — which we can have in summer — and acidic, light soils.
“It’s resilient,” said Shuresh Ghimire, a UConn Extension Service educator who spoke about hemp growing at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven last week. “I’m very confident it will grow here.”
Ghimire said growing it successfully, for a profit, however, can be harder. To get resin-laden buds full of CBD, the plants can’t be pollinated. That means either buying feminized seed or cloned plants — which are expensive — or spending a lot of time in the field removing the male plants.
And, Hurlburt said, Connecticut will never have the acreage for large-scale hemp-growing.
“We’ll leave that to Montana,” he said.
So the trick will be selling Connecticut-grown, small-lot hemp. Ghimire said a survey of state growers in 2019 found that 36 percent couldn’t find a market for their hemp crop.
Sherr of the Chamomile Natural Food store said that because of the interest in CBD oil, big manufacturers are making it. That may push small growers out of the market.
“Garden of Life is making it,” he said. “That’s Proctor and Gamble.”
Here’s where Yankee ingenuity may be needed. Maybe not warehouses, but people who make stuff.
Ghimire said he once found a handsome backpack, made of hemp, crafted in his native Nepal.
“Why don’t we grow hemp and make this in Connecticut?” he said.