SALEM — She planted her spring crops at the family farm, following the same steps as her ancestors did as they farmed the land for seven generations. She tilled the soil, sowed the seeds, irrigated the earth and waited for the bushy green hemp plants to sprout.
Then Iris Rogers did something her farmer forebears never had to do: She put up warning signs.
“Not marijuana,” it reads. “Will not get you high.”
In the nearly two years since New York state began widely authorizing farmers to grow hemp, farmers like Rogers have had to go to unusual lengths to protect their crops because so many people — from thieves to law enforcement officials — mistake hemp for marijuana.
The two cannabis plants look and smell alike, but hemp has a far lower concentration of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component, than marijuana.
Police officers around the nation have announced large-scale marijuana busts, only to find out later that the “drug” haul was actually hemp. Even drug-sniffing dogs, said Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association, react to hemp just as they do to marijuana. “It’s a mess,” she said.
Then there are the thieves intent on stealing it, either to deal it or smoke it themselves — sometimes doing so straight from the fields. Hemp farmers have spent fraught harvests hiding surveillance cameras among the stalks, sleeping in the fields with shotguns or waking up to empty holes where their hemp plants once grew.
After one nighttime theft at Rogers’ Old Homestead farm in Washington County, she immediately acquired an alarm of sorts: Its name is Asher, a cattle dog who yips at any rustle in fields.
“It is so stressful,” Rogers, 26, said. “It really is the kind of thing only for people with strong willpower, strong stomachs and the ability to stay positive.”
Previously: Salem sisters harvest hemp to save family farm
This year is only the second hemp harvest in the United States since President Donald Trump signed legislation legalizing its cultivation and turning oversight of the crop to the states. Hemp cultivation had been stymied since 1937, when a law designed to thwart it levied harsh taxes on its trade; it was then officially criminalized by a 1970 federal law.
The change in hemp’s legal status coincided with an explosive demand for cannabidiol, or CBD, a hemp extract and a purported panacea for pain and anxiety that is put in everything from creams and tinctures to food and drink.
Nearly 300,000 acres of industrial hemp were planted nationwide this year, more than triple the amount in 2018, according to data collected by the Brightfield Group, a market research firm that studies the cannabis industry.
While New York state has authorized a small amount of research farms to grow hemp since 2015 as part of a pilot program, the cap was lifted in 2017, and the program expanded to include additional farmers. Today, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, which runs the program, over 600 people are approved to grow and process the plant on 24,000 acres statewide.
And then they deal with the drama.
Some farmers wake up to a field of decapitated plants — hemp flower, the top of the stalk that is rich with the resin that contains CBD, is newly emerging as a smokable stress reliever and can sell for $3 to $40 a pound dependent on cannabidiol percentage, according to several farmers. The surgical precision of such cuts, growers say, means those thieves know exactly what they are stealing.