AUGUSTA, Maine — The Schoppee Farm in Machias has been in Ben Edwards' family for 200 years. For decades, it was a dairy farm, and Edwards knew someday he wanted to take over running the day-to-day operations.
When he realized restarting it as a dairy farm wouldn't be possible, he needed to find a new crop.
“And then in 2018, when hemp was federally legalized, we thought that made some sense," he said Friday during an interview on Zoom.
Edwards and a few hundred Maine farmers all got into the hemp industry four years ago.
“It turned out that the farm was very well suited for hemp, which was a novel thing. Everything we had looked at previously, it would have been a force fit," he added.
After the farm's first harvest one year later in 2019, Edwards realized keeping up maintenance around the farm is tough work. But he later understood the labor-intensive harvest was actually the easy part of his new job.
Because so many farmers began growing hemp, the market was oversaturated. Edwards said the prices for his product at the end of the harvest season were a fraction of what they were at the beginning.
He said around 200 farmers grew hemp when it became legalized in 2018, but now there are 50 farms around Maine.
His coastal farm harvests hemp during the first week or so of October, a little earlier than other inland farms might harvest.
Besides the market challenges, Edwards was met with the banking, insurance, and credit card issues that come with working in the cannabis industry.
Marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant. The key difference is the active ingredient known as THC is found in marijuana in much higher doses than in hemp. Right now, the legally allowable THC percentage in any hemp crop in Maine and around the country is 0.3 percent.
“Many farmers are moving away from growing hemp because the regulations are burdensome," Rep. Maggie O’Neil, D-Saco, said Friday.
O'Neil is the House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. She said many hemp farmers are confused with federal regulations that restrict their business growth opportunities.
“We all agree the federal rules are bad and they need to change," she added.
A bill titled An Act To Make Changes to the State's Hemp Program is still on the table in Augusta ahead of Monday's expected last day of the legislative session.
The bill would increase that 0.3 percent THC threshold and prevent farmers like Edwards from destroying some of their crop that barely exceeds the limit. The legislation also would clear up licensing regulations at the state level.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, introduced the Hemp Advancement Act in February. The bill would also raise the THC threshold for hemp crops, eliminate mandatory testing requirements at federal labs, and remove a 10-year ban for prior felons who were convicted on drug-related charges to get a hemp license.
That bill has not yet been voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Edwards admitted he thought of cannabis as a recreational drug before he learned about the medical benefits of the plant.
“I think that’s the foundational problem, is that there’s just so much misinformation and legacy damage to what the crop really can do," he added.