Ledyard's Town Farm at the forefront of state hemp production

Ledyard — Town Farm represents the past, present and future of farming in Connecticut.

When the town was founded in the 1800s, the property on what local tribes called Cider Hill was used as a work farm to rehabilitate the poor and morally deficient. Current owners Dylan and Amanda Williams started an organic vegetable farm and CSA program on the Town Farm Road land in 2010. Now, they're among the first in the state to participate in a new pilot program focusing on hemp.

Industrial hemp is a strain of Cannabis sativa used to produce fiber, seeds and cannabidiol (CBD), among other agricultural products. Though it is the same species as marijuana, it has a much lower concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component in marijuana.

The plant has seen a rebirth thanks to recent federal farm bills: a 2014 bill that allowed universities and state agricultural departments to grow hemp in controlled research trials, and a 2018 bill, signed in December, that now classifies it as an agricultural product and removes it from the Controlled Substances List.

This year, both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly voted unanimously to support a bill establishing a pilot program for hemp production, which Gov. Ned Lamont signed in May. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, was a cosponsor of the bill and said it had wide bipartisan support because it addressed environmental, manufacturing and rural concerns and interests. Other local legislators who cosponsored the bill include Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin.

"I think it's a win-win for everybody, especially for dairy farmers, who are under significant stress," Osten said. She noted that many farmers in her mostly rural district, which covers towns from Ledyard to Hebron, are concerned about the long-term stability of their businesses, and the pilot program allows them to test out hemp as a possible cash crop.

After a background check, fingerprinting, and fees for the application and acreage, a farm licensed under the pilot program can grow hemp for two years. Osten said eventually rules and regulations from the 2018 bill will supersede the pilot program.

Town Farm was the first farm in the state to become licensed under the program, but rather than growing hemp just to sell its byproducts, it is studying the plants to support the future hemp industry in the state.

"We can develop data that we can then use to implement agricultural systems not only in Connecticut but in the Northeast based on how we see the plants grow over time in this environment," Dylan Williams said. Currently, a lot of the hemp varieties in the country are developed out west, so this will provide more accurate local data.

The license allows him to continue research he started with Gerald Berkowitz, a plant scientist and professor at the University of Connecticut. Berkowitz said a field trip for his organic vegetable production class to a medical marijuana growing facility opened his eyes to the need for scientific rigor and research in cannabis.

"It was a great opportunity to turn on a light in a dark room and bring scholarship to a field that was lacking it," he said.

He added the growth of the cannabis industry will open up job opportunities for students interested in horticulture and plant science, and the school has started offering courses on cannabis production that have filled the campus' largest lecture halls.

In 2017, Berkowitz established a research farm for industrial hemp, where Williams served as the de facto lead farmer and supervised the "cannabis crew" of undergraduates studying how variations in greenhouse conditions and plant upkeep impacted the plants. Last summer, the two studied transplanting methods and different varieties.

Joseph Reynolds, a UConn graduate student working with Williams in Ledyard, said Town Farm currently has five study plots so they can investigate the impacts of different mulching techniques and harvest dates on the crops, as well as continued research into four different varieties.

As of the end of June, the farm had about 30,000 hemp seedlings, some of which it started for other Connecticut farms in the program. Beyond the actual plants, though, Williams has been working with interested farmers as well as the state agriculture department and farm bureau, advising farmers on how to ready themselves ahead of applying for the license.

"The Department of Agriculture sees the necessity of bringing diversity to some of these farms that have been doing dairy or corn silage production," he said. "Bringing in a new crop that has shown to be very profitable will give these farms kind of a second chance at being economically viable."

Williams said many tobacco farmers in the state have also expressed interest in growing hemp, since the pilot program allows them to grow, harvest and dry the plants and flowers and they already have the infrastructure to do that. The local processing and manufacturing components to produce the fiber, grain and CBD are lagging behind the growing, but the timing will work out as investors support processing projects that would be completed right around the harvest in late fall, he said.

Amanda Williams, who researched the history of the Town Farm property for her graduate program, said she hopes the pilot program allows them and others to revive family farms and go back to their roots. 

She said that so far, everyone they've encountered has been friendly toward their work, and people who are skeptical of hemp's familial connection to marijuana are supportive once they learn about the differences between the plants.

"I think our reputation over the last couple of years as being plant scientists developing new plants the right way has given us acceptance throughout the community," Dylan Williams said.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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