Struggling CT hemp farmers feeling 'left out' of state's cannabis plans

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

Jordan Fenster/Hearst Connecticut Media

Becky Goetsch grows hemp. She has since 2019, after U.S. Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act, which made hemp a legal cash crop.  

Since then, the price of hemp has crashed. That has, in turn, reduced the number of hemp farmers in Connecticut from a high of 140 in 2020 to about half that now.  

“A lot of people got into it thinking that it was going to be a cash crop,” Goetsch said. “Certainly there is an oversupply of hemp for CBD.” 

Goetsch, like many hemp farmers, thought she would dive into the recreational cannabis market, but she decided against it, ultimately. 

“I was so disgusted with the lottery system,” she said. “I decided that my time and my energy and my money could be better spent being an advocate for hemp producers.”

Goetsch, also the newly appointed president of the Connecticut Hemp Industry Association, said hemp producers were left out of the state's process for granting licenses to grow cannabis.

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

Jordan Fenster/Hearst Connecticut Media

Those companies growing THC-laden marijuana for medical use were given preferential treatment, she said, and she believes existing hemp growers should have as well.

“It just seems to me that they left out this entire community of people who have devoted four years now to honing the craft,” she said. 

Included in the law that made recreational adult use of cannabis legal is a provision to create a hemp working group, the purpose of which, according to an Office of Legislative Research analysis, is to investigate “the way neighboring states have integrated hemp and its products and producers into their recreational cannabis programs, statutes and regulations,” and to consider “possible legislation to integrate hemp and its products and licensed producers into Connecticut’s recreational cannabis statutes.”

Both Goetsch and another hemp farmer, Brant Smith, have been appointed to that group. It was supposed to convene at the beginning of the year, they said, but has not met yet. 

“The way the bill is written, it was all supposed to happen within 30 days of the law going into effect,” Goetsch said. “But here we are a couple of months later, and we haven't even had our first meeting.”

It’s not a new idea. Other states have incorporated hemp farmers into their roll-out of adult-use cannabis. 

“We're already growing cannabis,” Smith said. New York State has already done this. I mean, it's not like this would break new territory.” 

Know-how

There are, Goetsch and Smith believe, some compelling reasons to allow hemp farmers to grow THC-laden cannabis. The first is the farmers’ existing knowledge base and infrastructure.

“They call the medical marijuana producers the ‘legacy growers,’ but so are the hemp producers,” Goetsch said. “We've been growing cannabis, it's the same techniques that you need to grow marijuana. We've fine-honed our skills, we've built out our facilities and our and our and our capabilities.” 

Recreational cannabis retail sales are supposed to begin by the end of this year, but Smith, a hemp farmer in Cheshire, said he doubts growers will be ready.  

“I don't see how they can supply a state of three-and-a-half million people anywhere near what the demand will be,” he said.  

The medical growers have to continue growing for the medical market, and it will take time for any new grower to get up to speed.  

“Once you do get your facility and you have your license you have to grow it and that takes approximately six months,” Smith said. “So, I don't believe that they will have marijuana in the timeframe that they're talking about.” 

Brant Smith shows off his hemp farm in Cheshire. 

Brant Smith shows off his hemp farm in Cheshire. 

CP090422weedhemp

Allowing hemp growers to shift to marijuana would “allow marijuana to get to the market way faster,” he said. “Because we already have the abilities and the technology and the know-how to grow it because we’re growing it.” 

Mike Goodenough works with Connecticut’s hemp farmers. 

“We have about 47 farmers in the state of Connecticut that we support today,” he said. “We help them to grow the hemp. We help them to extract and then we help them manufacture products. We help them to build the brand.”

New farmers, he said, will have a tough time getting up to speed. 

“Quite frankly, the fact is that these new cannabis cultivators, they have no clue what they're doing,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is mold. One of the biggest problems are the products themselves and the conditions, bugs, plastic, other things that have been found in these products. We know how to do this right. We've been doing it since 2018. We can stand up tomorrow with a quality product that is grown organically, because Department of Agriculture requires us to grow organically.”

A new and struggling industry

Smith also began growing soon after Connecticut passed its own version of the farm bill.

“As soon as it became legal in Connecticut, I started growing,” he said.  

In Connecticut, hemp farms are still largely locally owned, but elsewhere in the country large corporations have begun to swoop in and buy local farms so they can operate at scale.  

That, and what some believe is an oversaturation of CBD products, has crashed the value of a bushel of hemp putting many of Connecticut’s hemp farmers out of business. 

Smith said when he first began growing hemp, he was able to sell it for $500 a pound. The price has dropped considerably since then, but adult-use cannabis sells for closer to $3,000 per pound wholesale. 

That’s why they had hoped to be grandfathered in as cannabis growers when the state began considering legal recreational use.  

“Same costs, same whatever, six times the price,” Smith said.

Brant Smith shows off his hemp farm in Cheshire. 

Brant Smith shows off his hemp farm in Cheshire. 

CP090422weedhemp

Meanwhile, all four of the state’s licensed medical marijuana growers are multi-state operators, who were given a leg up when it came to selecting growers for recreational cannabis licenses.  

There’s a lottery process to determine growers for the state’s soon-to-be recreational market but, as the state Department of Consumer Protection said in January, “currently licensed medical marijuana producers converting to engage in the adult-use cannabis market” are “not subject to the lottery process.” 

“I am struggling to break even, to be honest,” Smith said. “You've got this nascent industry in Connecticut that is getting driven under, meanwhile the recreational marijuana side of things is basically being given to multi-state operators.” 

CBD versus THC

Smith has acres of hemp greenhouses in Cheshire. He sells a few brands of CBD products, salves and the like, but mostly sells trimmed hemp in bulk.

CBD won't get you high, but it's used as a sleep aid, a muscle relaxant in salves and for other medicinal purposes. 

The hemp he grows is low on THC, the substance in marijuana that gets you high. In fact, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 specifies that every plant must contain less than .03 percent THC.  

“If it has more than that, it's technically a marijuana plant, and so has to be destroyed or has to be remediated,” he said.  

The problem with that, Smith said, is that to get a good amount of CBD in a plant — on the order of 15 percent — “you cannot get the THC below, say, .06.” 

“People involved in hemp know that,” he said. “Honestly, there are many places in the world where the threshold level is 1 percent, which makes sense to me because you cannot get high on a plant that's less than 1 percent.” 

But the chemical composition of a cannabis plant is not so binary. It’s not just a question of THC and CBD.  

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

A hemp plant at Brant Smith's Cheshire hemp farm.

Jordan Fenster/Hearst Connecticut Media

“There's also something called THC-A in a plant, which is basically what will turn into THC if you combust it,” Smith said. “The federal law doesn't take into account that at all.” 

The Connecticut regulation that legalized the production and sale of hemp does, however, take THC-A into account. To determine the legal levels of THC-A, they take the amount of the chemical in a dried plant, multiply it by .84 and then add it to the amount of THC.  

“If you're growing something with 15, 16, 17 percent CBD, it will end up being .06, .05,” Smith said. “Still, you're not going to get high on it.” 

Smith does grow plants with CBD, but because of the regulations he leans on plants high in another chemical, called CBG.  

“It's called the master cannabinoid,” he said. “That cannabinoid doesn't have THC because all the other cannabinoids come off of it. So there's no THC and CBD. So we're able to grow that.” 

If you want the most out of it “the best, most effective CBD is what we call full-spectrum, where CBD is the primary cannabinoid, but there are a lot of other cannabinoids as well, including THC, and they all work together,” Smith said. 
The fact that all those chemicals come from different strains of the same plant, but that hemp farmers have been left out of the cannabis cultivation process is what bothers Goodenough.

“There's 140 molecules in this plant. I can't grow one. I can grow 139 of them. But I can't grow one,” he said. “The goal is to be able to integrate within the entire market. Why am I ripping the diamonds out of my pile of potential opportunity?”