Farmer touts industrial hemp as answer to agriculture woes

Norwich — With dairy farming in an economic recession and younger generations questioning whether it's worth all the hard work, Noank farmer Kevin Blacker said Connecticut needs to focus on a crop that has a promising future: industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp, a strong fiber plant used to make everything from clothing, rope and paper to animal feed and even flour for human consumption, can be grown on fields throughout the region, Blacker said. The Thames River and the two freight rail lines that run along its banks can provide an easy transportation system to get the products to market.

The problem is, industrial hemp plants look just like marijuana, although with only a tiny fraction of the psychoactive ingredient THC, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. In the United States, industrial hemp is controlled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, although there is a recent push to turn over control to the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead.

The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill included language to allow state departments of agriculture and land grant universities to develop regulations and launch pilot programs in industrial hemp production, said Jason Bowsza, chief of staff at the state Department of Agriculture. Larger farm states have launched such efforts, but lack of funding and staffing has slowed Connecticut’s efforts, he said.

“There are challenges that preclude us from going forward,” Bowsza said. “For comparison, New York state put $11 million into it. Kentucky has more than a dozen employees to work on this. We don’t have those resources.”

Bowsza said the department gets “a lot of phone calls about industrial hemp” and supports the potential to bring the crop to Connecticut.

“We always want to encourage agricultural producers to shift to something else,” Bowsza said. “We’re seeing this now with dairy farmers looking to get out of the business. We don’t want to see agricultural land be changed to something else. Agriculture contributes $4 billion per year to the state’s economy, so we're looking to support that.”

Blacker, who owns a landscape company in Noank, raises beef cattle and rents several large fields throughout the region to grow hay, is leading the push to launch industrial hemp production in the state.

Blacker has organized a meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday on a vacant lot at 55 Terminal Way in Norwich, in the former Shipping Street industrial district, to discuss industrial hemp possibilities in Connecticut. The location is off Route 32 in the Thamesville section of Norwich. He said he will have someone at the Route 32-Shipping Street intersection to direct participants to the site.

The site is not proposed for any operation but was available on short notice to host the meeting, Blacker said. He wanted to have the meeting on the Thames River to show off that potential, and needed to schedule it before Memorial Day weekend, when farmers get very busy.

Blacker has invited farmers, state legislators, mayors and first selectmen and representatives from the Connecticut Farm Bureau, the state Department of Agriculture, the Connecticut Port Authority and the freight rail company Genesee & Wyoming Inc. to attend. The meeting is open to the public, but he asks those planning to attend to RSVP to Joan Nichols at the Connecticut Farm Bureau at (860) 951-2791 or by email to joann@cfba.org by noon Monday, May 21.

“The dairy industry in the Northeast is in extreme duress,” Blacker said. “A lot of dairy farmers are going out of business. It’s going to have a major impact on all of Connecticut. If that land goes out of business, hundreds and hundreds of acres is going to come out of production.”

Blacker also has personal concerns. If dairy cattle grazing fields and feed corn fields go fallow, they likely would grow hay and flood that market, further depressing prices for his main cash crop.

Bowsza plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting to discuss his department’s role in developing industrial hemp production in Connecticut and the status of developing the necessary regulations. Bowsza said the department doesn’t yet have a staff attorney — “we’re close to getting one” — to write the regulations.

“To (non-experts), marijuana and industrial hemp look exactly the same, except the THC content,” Bowsza said. “We still have to make sure we have a means to determine what we’re looking at, because marijuana is still illegal. We would need field staff and to make sure there are controls in place.”

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said there’s already a state law giving the state Department of Agriculture the authority to write the regulations to launch a pilot program. Osten said she plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting to hear the status and gauge interest in the concept.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom also plans to attend. Nystrom, a former state representative in his second term as mayor, said his own views of the potential for cannabis have changed.

“I certainly understand the concern by the farmers,” Nystrom said. “Years ago, you couldn’t talk to me about use of marijuana for medical purposes. Then as mayor I tried to get a medical marijuana facility to come to Norwich.”

c.bessette@theday.com

If you go

What: Discussion on opportunities for industrial hemp production in Connecticut

When: Tuesday, May 22, 4-5 p.m.

Where: 55 Terminal Way, Norwich.

Contact: RSVP by noon Monday to Joan Nichols at Connecticut Farm Bureau, (860) 951-2791 or joann@cfba.org">joann@cfba.org.

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