A small hemp crop was grown for the first time this year at Backbone Food Farm
Katharine Dubansky, who owns the farm with her husband Max, noted that she had been aware of the legalization of hemp on the horizon.
“Hemp is a crop that has a lot of opportunities in a lot of different areas,” she said. “It’s a pretty unique and amazing plant that can do almost anything, so as a farmer I’m always looking for a new crop. As someone who’s concerned about a healthy environment and the health of the planet, which seems to be in peril at the moment, I’m always looking for anything that’s going to help in those areas. As someone who was growing things, it was definitely a crop that I wanted to grow on my farm.”
In February, Dubansky attended the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference, where she attended with a panel of farmers who had grown hemp the year before.
“I realized that it was going to be an option for us in this state, and I saw their experiences,” she said. “There was a farmer who was farming a lot like us — a small produce diversified farm. He had added the hemp, and it worked out really well for them.”
She started to research and found that there was a pilot program this year that required finding a university partner to work with.
“I’m a Frostburg State graduate, so I contacted those guys to track someone down who was willing to work with me,” she said.
This led her to Al Delia, vice president for regional development and engagement, and then to David Puthoff, chair of the biology department, who was willing to partner with her on the project.
FSU was flexible with how the project would be set up, and Dubansky was able to design her own trial.
“They worked with me but let me see what was going to work with our farm and we started real small,” she said. “We just wanted to work in the parameters that we felt comfortable with. As a vegetable grower, it was really easy to kind of plug hemp into that.”
The trial was set up for 100 plants so the Dubanskys could study different varieties to see what might work in the climate and in their soils. They used four varieties and grew half in a high tunnel and half outside.
“We just wanted to compare and contrast and see how they did indoor and outdoor and then monitor for disease and pest damage,” Dubansky said.
In the trial, two varieties went to seed and had to be harvested early, but two performed well, with the inside plants doing a little better than those grown outside.
“We didn’t have any serious pest or disease pressure,” Dubansky said. “They grew really well in this climate. We had the best kind of growing climate you could have had for this crop in the fall — dry and sunny, so that was really in our favor.”
The plants were harvested and hung in a drying chamber created in the barn.
“We grew a CBD-rich variety because that kind of fit into our vegetable growing,” Dubansky explained. “Now we’re trying to figure out the best way to market it. We’ve mostly been able to fit into the dried flower market. It’s a smokable flower. It’s been kind of a new thing in the last five to six years that this type of hemp plant has been developed. Since it’s been decriminalized, growers who were already in the cannabis industry saw a need for creating a plant that had no THC in it because it has all of these other health benefits that people are looking for.”
Dubansky also hopes to have enough to get a small batch of oil pressed.
She noted that there were a total of six permits issued in Garrett County for trials this past summer.
She expressed her thanks to everyone who helped her with the project.
“I couldn’t have done it alone,” she said. “It’s been really nice to have support. Willie Lantz and the Extension service have been very supportive. There is a big interest in the county.”
Dubansky plans to continue growing hemp, increasing her crop next year to between three to five acres.
“I’d like to keep it on a smaller scale and do it right,” she said. “Do it organically and out of good quality soil and create a high quality product to be pressed into oils and smokable flowers and possibly body care products.”
She is waiting to get a better understanding of how the crops will be regulated before final plans are made. She feels that regulation is a good thing because many products don’t come from great sources.
“I feel like a lot of people are going to be looking for a local product that is organically grown and that they can trust,” she said. “It’s a niche market.”
A fundraiser has been created through Frostburg State’s Give Campus program to help cover the cost of the project for this year.
“We wanted to be able to do it right without feeling super worried about having to take that much risk,” Dubansky said. “It did take a lot of time and it takes a lot to get started. This way, we could take some time and learn it right so we could be helpful to others in the future. Our main goal is not to make money growing this crop. Our main goal is really just to learn and get a season under us so we can hopefully share our experience.”
The fundraiser goes until Dec. 31 and is currently at 42 percent.
Dubansky noted that hemp is expected to be a $2.2-billion industry by 2020.
“I really hope that in the future it’s going to be a really great thing for our agricultural community and the greater economy,” she said. “It’s not going to go away. It would seem like a really positive thing. There’s really no negatives that I have seen. There are like 25,000 things you can do with a hemp plant.”