LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
To New England now. Maple syrup, cheese and ski resorts are staples of Vermont's economy, and the state may soon be adding hemp to that list. The plant's fiber has been used for fabric for millennia, but Vermont farmers are growing hemp for its purported medicinal properties.
And Jon Kalish reports that the hemp business is booming.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: This plant in an industrial section of Brattleboro used to turn out Hostess Twinkies. Now workers are converting it into a facility to process hemp flowers.
CARL CHRISTIANSON: We're putting another $150,000 into renovation of the space.
KALISH: Carl Christianson shows me around. He's CEO of Northeast Processing. When it opens next month, it will take dried hemp flowers and extract one particular compound, cannabidiol or CBD.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has established a hemp program run by Cary Giguere.
CARY GIGUERE: Our hemp registry has exploded. This year, we've got nearly 400 folks growing hemp, and it's almost 3,000 acres.
KALISH: And it's only been four years since Vermonters can grow hemp legally. Some states still outlaw hemp cultivation because the plant is related to marijuana. Unlike marijuana, though, hemp won't get you high. But proponents use CBD to treat everything from insomnia to arthritis. The FDA forbids CBD producers from making such health claims, and CBD is virtually unregulated.
That doesn't deter entrepreneurs like Carl Christianson.
CHRISTIANSON: We see hemp as being something that could be quite advantageous to the state because the state needs new revenue. It needs new industry. But it doesn't want to abandon who it is.
KALISH: And who or what is Vermont? It's the Green Mountain State, dotted with picturesque small towns, food co-ops, farmers markets and some of the best craft breweries in the country. And now, fields once used for hay are now filled with lush, green hemp plants 10-feet tall.
At their family farm in Stockbridge, Joe and Rebecca Pimentel are growing hemp for the second year in a row.
JOE PIMENTEL: At one point in time when we were vegetable farming and doing CSAs and stuff, we were milking goats. And as we got deeper and deeper, we decided to go against that and turn a different direction.
KALISH: Pimentel and his wife opened a commercial kitchen in a nearby town, where they make CBD-infused honey and ointment. Up north in Hardwick, the Green Mountain CBD farm is getting a $5 million investment from an out-of-state venture capital firm.
Farmer Alejandro Bergad has ramped up CBD production to an industrial scale. He set up a factory on his farm, where robots fill capsules with CBD oil.
ALEJANDRO BERGAD: Currently, we're producing 60,000 capsules a day. Next year, we'll be producing over a million capsules a day.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We sell hemp seeds and flowers - just about everything, including a stellar selection of CBD products and a heavy focus on organics.
KALISH: That radio commercial is for the Green State Gardener store in Burlington. Owner Dylan Raap expects to take in a million dollars from CBD sales this year.
DYLAN RAAP: We're seeing boomers come in for joint pain, but we're also seeing a lot of millennials and really everybody coming in for anxiety and just the mood-stabilizing effect that CBD has.
KALISH: While there's scant scientific evidence for any of these benefits, CBD sales are certainly good for the nerves of Vermont's farmers.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.