LEWIS COUNTY, N.Y. (WWNY) - It’s harvest time for growers in the area. Aside from the typical cutting of corn and wheat, Lewis County has a new crop to chop.
From far away it looks like Christmas trees. From close up, it looks like an illegal substance.
It's industrial hemp. It's perfectly legal and it's growing in Lewis County.
“There’s thousands of different uses for industrial hemp: fiber; grain, and probably the most popular use for today in New York state would be for the cannabidiol, or the CBD oil,” said Mike Hunter, Lewis County Cornell Cooperative Extension crop specialist.
The difference between industrial hemp and marijuana is the levels of TCH, the chemical that gets you high.
In industrial hemp, THC levels have to be .3 percent or lower. Growers also have to obtain a permit before they can put seed to ground. But when it is planted, for lack of a better phrase, it grows like a weed.
"It's a relatively easy crop to grow, widely adaptive to the soils that we have and the climate we have in New York state and northern New York," said Hunter.
According to Hunter, the last few years in Lewis County, there have only been one or two acres of hemp. This year, however, there are about 300 acres of hemp growing in Lewis County.
Hemp producers have started contracting with farmers in Lewis County, meaning they rent the land and labor to grow the plant. There has also been increased interest across the state for growers to start producing the crop themselves. The new crop opportunity might be tempting, but it's not as easy as it seems.
"I think right now industrial hemp has got a little more risk involved in it than corn or soybeans or wheat for example," said Hunter.
That's because harvesting can be tricky. The plant is so fibrous equipment has a hard time cutting through it. And getting someone to actually turn it into a product can be a challenge as there aren't many markets in the state.
Plus, the crop itself can be a gamble. If your plant turns out to have THC levels higher than the 0.3 percent regulation, the entire crop is wasted.
"You've gotta do your homework, there's no question about it. If you're gonna think about growing industrial hemp, there's a lot of homework to be done," said Hunter.
So next time you drive through Lewis County, what you’re seeing and quite possibly smelling is hemp, a legal crop that has the potential to be very profitable for growers in the area.