Typically, the stories within the pages of Maine Seniors Magazine feature folks over fifty doing or creating something special. This one is a little different, for the senior in this case is a farm in Machias that might be an “old dog,” but is certainly learning some new tricks.
For nearly a century, the Schoppee Farm on East Kennebec Road served the region as a small-town dairy farm. After closing in the 1960s, the farm produced organic hay for neighboring farms. But Ben Edwards, an eighth-generation member of the farm’s original family, wanted to do more than grow hay.
Ben tried resurrecting the dairy farm, complete with cows and chickens, but it didn’t work out. Then, during a visit home, Ben met his wife, Allison. “That changed everything,” he said. When Ben, the managing partner, shared his hopes for Schoppee Farm, he and Allie collaborated on several ideas, including making elderberry champagne.
“We were brainstorming on what to do with the land,” said Allie, now the farm’s creative director. “We’re both from Machias and wanted to be here and raise our family here.” Ben talked with a friend, Dr. Omar Meer, about what to do with the fields. Dr. Meer, who is now co-medical director along with Dr. David Rioux, suggested hemp. “I never gave hemp a second thought,” Allie said. “I didn’t really understand what it was or the benefits, but was like, ‘Okay.’” Ben was skeptical.
“I’d always looked at cannabis as a recreational product,” said Ben. “For me, it was utterly dubious. It was not fun. It was the furthest thing from fun.” Like many people, both Allie and Ben had tried cannabis, but hadn’t come away with positive experiences. But Ben’s mother, Beverly, on the other hand, used it medically with success, as did Dr. Meer’s mother, both of whom died from cancer. The plan was to find a way to create the medicine without the high that not everyone enjoys.
Not fully aware of the differences between hemp and marijuana, Ben dove into research. Hemp, he learned, is cannabis, same as its familiar kin. The difference is the THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that produces the high. It’s the amount of THC in the plant that makes it hemp or marijuana. “Hemp is a legal definition that’s different in different countries. Here it’s less than point three percent THC. Over point three percent THC is marijuana,” Ben explained. “But it’s all cannabis.”
Before putting their first plants in the soil, however, they needed to find out whether hemp would even grow in Maine, especially in an area like Machias, which can boast brutal winters and unpredictable summers. They did extensive research online, watching videos on YouTube and reading countless articles. Then they had to figure out what equipment they would need for planting, irrigating, harvesting, curing, and storing.
When it turned out that the Maine climate was conducive for farming hemp, the fields were tilled and six months after hatching their idea, they were off and growing. “That whole spring is kind of a blur,” Allison said. Ben’s brother and father flew in to help since it was just she and Ben at the helm. “That spring, we were able to muddle through that first season, not having a clue how to grow hemp.”
There were many hurdles, beginning with the weather. It was one of the wettest springs in recent memory. “Everything was muddy and soggy, and the ground was a mess. Every time I looked out the window the tractor was buried in the mud in the backyard,” she said. They had some of their plants stolen, and there have also been issues with wholesale partners and proper distribution, not to mention the onset of the pandemic.
Allison said the latter forced them to hone in on what they wanted the new Schoppee Farm to be. With shops closed during the lockdown, their products were no longer on a retail shelf, which meant that Schoppee Farm needed a strong online presence. They also added more products to their lineup.
Along with buds for smoking or vaping, they added pre-rolls, oils, topical salves, soaps, edibles, and even dog treats, all of which are made in house. “It did start with just the smokable flower and just grew from there,” Allison said. When shops did reopen, they arranged for products to be sold at the Machias General Store. Dog owners can find CBD dog treats at Sew Fetch in Machias, as well. “There’s lots of stuff you can do with it,” Ben said of hemp. “You can grow it for fiber or seed, but that’s not particularly doable in this climate. Ours is grown for flower, the same way you would grow cannabis marijuana for flower.” The difference, Ben noted, is that people who use Schoppee Farm’s CBD and CBG products will reap the benefits of the plant without the high.
Allie and Ben appreciate that they can endorse what they offer because they use it. “During my pregnancy, when I was hyperaware of everything that I was eating, drinking, using on my skin, on my hair,” Allison said. “I kind of shifted away from all of my regular products.” When she developed a rash caused by pregnancy hormones, Ben made her lotion and body wash. To help her sleep, she used an oil, and her favorite nightly snack is chocolate from the collection of reject bars that cannot be sold due to minor imperfections.
“It was really cool to have the facility to be able to…make our own stuff that is made from our own products that we know is healthy,” Ben said. “I love that we can solve our own problems with our own products.” Many products were initially created for someone else. The oils were made for family members, the salves for Dr. Meer, and their dog treats for their pup Barbosa. They hired a professional chef, André Gamard, who is tasked with creating their chocolate confections, as well as their Pâte de Fruit.
What’s of the utmost importance, however, is educating their consumers. “So much of the success or failure with any cannabis product, whether it’s marijuana or hemp, has to do with education of the consumer,” Ben said. “Most people don’t know how to use it, don’t have the patience to use it, and it doesn’t fit our American model of a quick fix. It’s more preventative.”
Because most people aren’t familiar with the benefits of hemp, smokable product wasn’t the best means of delivery, hence the creation of edibles. They work with their customers to find the best products that offer the relief consumers want. “It’s already an intimidating product,” Allison said. “I think about my parents when we started this, trying to explain what we’re doing to my mom or my dad. We knew from personal experience how they worked but getting them warmed up to CBD products took some work.”
They want to be sure everyone interested in Schoppee Farm products has the same opportunity for education, including in the shops where products are sold. When there’s interest from a seller, they make sure the relationship is a good fit before placing the product on the shelves.
Finding the right partnerships, however, has been difficult. “Our partnerships, for me, I think have been the most frustrating component of it,” Ben said. “We have now taken on making chocolate because we haven’t been able to find a way to outsource that. Obviously, we know we’re not the best confectioners in the world. We would love to work with more professionals. But in order to have the control over the end product we want, we found that, right now, we need to do it ourselves.”
Ben said that it has been a bit of fun to engineer solutions to their array of problems, one of which is determining how much THC should go into a product. Working with knowledgeable medical professionals has helped. “There is a tremendous synergy to having a medical caregiver working with us so that we can work together [for a client],” Ben said. “There are plenty of conditions where our product needs more THC. Whether it’s chronic pain that requires opiates, to nausea… There’s a variety of conditions where a bit more THC can be really valuable.”
Doing all they can at home means they are able to customize products, which, as Ben and Allie said, is a big help. “I would love for us to be able to continue to expand that,” Ben said. “It’s amazing how well it can work, with guidance.” “This is changing people’s lives,” Allie said. “And their comfort. Just their quality of life. We need to keep expanding and doing more with this.”
And what of the future of Schoppee Farm? “We’ve talked about this so much, since the beginning,” Allie said. “I think we want to break into face and body products.” Ben would like to grow more medicinal products, as well as bring animals in. They’re even talking about hosting weddings and other events at the farm, as well as allowing camping on the farm grounds.
But in the end, it comes back to family. After years of pursuing their own interests and adventures, Ben’s brothers, Matt and Peter, have come back to the farm, as has his father, Dr. John Edwards. “This is our little group out here. It’s a family thing,” Allie said. “It’s a family farm. That’s what makes this business so special. We want to continue that.”
For more information about Schoppee Farm, visit shopschoppee.com.