New York Entrepreneurs Betting on Billion-Dollar Future of Hemp

Photo by Dan Skye

A former bank executive and a former counterterrorism agent are running the first legal hemp farm in New York State, and they’re harvesting superfood products, like baby greens salad mix, pasta and cold-pressed oil.

JD Farms’ co-owners, Mark Justh and Dan Dolgin, bought 1,500 acres of land nearly a decade ago with the idea of growing organic veggies, until they learned that hemp was more than just a cover crop as protection against weeds.

“I’d been approached about growing medical marijuana. But I thought, what can I produce that has a competitive advantage?” Justh told Bloomberg News. “How do I compete with the Midwest, with Ukraine? I realized it was a question of government regulation. Then, Dan got involved, and we saw the possibility of hemp as a food product.”

When their land became the first private farm certified to grow hemp under a New York state pilot program, they planted 100 acres of it and were relieved when New York Governor Cuomo signed the bill last summer that made it legal for JD Farms to sell its harvest.

This week, Governor Cuomo signed another bill that aims to further boost hemp production. Cuomo also announced $10 million in state funds would be earmarked to boost industrial hemp research and development.

Now that hemp is becoming a culinary sensation, JD Farms is providing their products to some of New York City’s best chefs.

“We both knew that hemp was on its way to becoming a superfood, in that category of flax and chia seeds. We saw a sustainable long-term play in that market,” said Dolgin.

Hemp seeds are second only to soybeans in protein content and contain all 20 known amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce.

Among its reputed health benefits, according to Hemp Basics: immune-system booster, weight suppressant (because it’s high in fiber) and an ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s popular with vegetarians because it’s high in the fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6.

JD Farms’ hemp oil also has the advantage of being fresher than others because it’s being produced here in the U.S.

At this point, the majority of hemp oil and seeds sold in the U.S. come from plants grown in Canada. According to the Toronto Star, in the first quarter of 2015, Canada exported $34 million worth of hemp seeds and oil.

Today, barely one percent of Americans are farming hemp. Before it was prohibited in 1937, that number was 30 percent, and our hemp was considered among the best in the world.

Now, we are trying to catch up

Hemp began to make a comeback after President Obama signed a provision in the 2014 farm bill that removed hemp grown for research purposes from the Controlled Substances Act, even though the DEA continues to create problems for the hemp market.

One of the fastest growing and most versatile plants on earth, hemp has traditionally been used for making all manner of essential objects such as paper, textiles, cloth, biodegradable plastics, paint and biofuel… to name a few.

And it’s tasty, fresh and healthy.

“We believe the next iteration of the hemp market is to go into snack foods, to give it wider penetration into households,” said Dolgin. “We’re looking at products like ice cream and beer. We already have a pretty broad product portfolio, and we want to get even more innovative.”

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