He'd originally planned to grow organic produce; hemp would simply be the cover crop, as protection against weeds. But "hemp began to look very interesting," he said. "Then Dan got involved, and we saw the possibility of hemp as a food product."
Dolgin worked at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, both in D.C., before he tired of government jobs. He'd been working on cybersecurity projects in New York when he met Justh.
"I grew up as a Jewish kid on Long Island," Dolgin said. "I like the idea of making an impact in a depressed New York community, and of looking at agriculture in a new way. We began to consider hemp. Because of my regulatory background, I knew how government works - and doesn't work."
Justh, meanwhile, saw the financial possibilities: "I'd been approached about growing medical marijuana. But I thought, What can I produce that has a competitive advantage? How do I compete with the Midwest, with Ukraine? I realized it was a question of government regulation. And I have a partner who is very intelligent about regulatory issues."
Although it's often mistaken for cannabis and comes from the same plant, hemp is not the same product. While marijuana is bred to include potent amounts of THC, hemp has less than 0.3 percent of the hallucinogen. "You could smoke a football field of hemp and you wouldn't get high, you'd get a headache," Dolgin said. Still, when it planted its first seeds, JD Farms had to install an armed guard. (Until planted in the ground, hemp seeds are considered a Schedule I narcotic, Dolgin said.)
Hemp, the plant, is traditionally known for its use in textiles and ropes. That's because of its strength: After about three weeks of growth, a hemp stalk will be so sturdy it's almost impossible to break because the fibers are so long and strong.
For culinary products, it's the seeds that are all-important. After they're pressed to produce oil, the resulting byproduct can be processed into a flour from which products like pasta can be created. JD Farms has also started cultivating young hemp leaves for salad mixes.
For those unfamiliar with hemp's current status, Dolgin supplies the 30-second download: "In the '70s it got caught up with marijuana in the anti-drug laws. It stayed that way for several decades, until the tobacco industry hit rock bottom and states like Virginia realized they need a new crop for farmers. In 2014 the passage of the U.S. Farm Bill allowed states to conduct hemp pilot programs. You could grow hemp if you were certified and licensed." Because of the government work Dolgin had done, he was able to work closely with state senators and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office to pass a series of bills that allowed JD Farms to grow hemp. The industry is currently a $688 million business in the U.S.
In March 2016, JD Farms became the first private farm certified to grow hemp under a New York state pilot program; it planted 100 acres' worth. That, however, did not legally give JD Farms the right to sell its product. "There was a chance we were going to have to burn the hemp if the law didn't pass," Justh said with a worried laugh.
In August, Cuomo signed the bill that made it legal for JD Farms to sell its harvest. In his State of the State address in January, the governor noted that hemp had the potential to become a billion-dollar industry in New York. JD Farms' bet had paid off.
Dolgin, who worked with state legislatures to help get the bill passed, said, "What we brought to the table is that we treated hemp as a big agriculture business, not as a few plants in a greenhouse like marijuana." Justh added, "For hemp to take its greater place in the agricultural landscape, it needs to be seen as a commodity."
Dolgin summed it up: "We're very bullish about the food aspect of hemp. It's right for an American farm to dominate that market, especially in the organic space."
There was another reason hemp appealed to the pair: its potential to be the next runaway hit food product, the next kale. "Mark and I both live pretty healthy, active lifestyles," Dolgin said. "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."
Hemp flour products are high in protein (only soybeans have more), and hemp contains 20 amino acids, including nine that the body doesn't produce. Among its reputed health benefits: 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 - found in beneficial fish like salmon - and omega-6.
And then there's the quality. JD Farms' oil tastes fresher than other hemp oils because it's produced in the U.S. Most hemp oil and seeds sold in America 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.) Before hemp enters the U.S. it must be sterilized. (If it's not, it counts as a Schedule I drug, along with substances such as heroin and ecstasy.) When it's heated, hemp loses its pungent freshness and nuttiness.
"It's such an oily seed, heat speeds up the rancidity," Justh said. "Plus it's just sitting around in vats. It's got nothing in common with a product that is fresh from the field."
At JD Farms, harvested seeds are cold-pressed. "We look at it like fine wine - you can taste the terroir, can taste the fields, which gives it earthy flavor. The product is so good, it can be used as a dipping oil; it doesn't have to hide behind other ingredients," he said.
Among the fans of JD Farms products is the dynamic chef Ignacio Mattos, of Estela and Flora Bar at the Met Breuer in Manhattan. "We are always pursuing new ingredients and flavors," Mattos said in an email. "The leaves have quite a unique flavor profile, they're grassy and sweet. The seeds are a bit nutty and sweet when they're raw. The texture is quite fun when it's toasted and a bit more savory when cooked." He's working on using the seeds in desserts and adding the oil to a tomato and mozzarella salad.
At the hit New York restaurant Sunday in Brooklyn, chef Jaime Young is using JD Farms hemp seeds in a togarashi-style spice blend he sprinkles on his fried chicken. "The seeds are great," Young said. "They have a slightly floral character and wonderful texture, almost like cracked coriander."
One company that's paying attention to JD Farms is Whole Foods Market. According to a senior global grocery buyers, David Lafferty, "shoppers are seeking out hemp products more than ever, thanks to both product innovation and the increased promotion of hemp's nutritional benefits by food brands." JD Farms has teamed with Satur Farms, a Long Island-based supplier of gourmet greens and vegetables, on a baby greens mix of kale and hemp that will be available at Whole Foods throughout the Northeast by the end of July. The salad's sharp leaves are vaguely reminiscent of pot and have a similar sharp, almost minty flavor. Co-owner Paulette Satur describes the flavor as "lemony," and is optimistic about the project.
"We decided it fits in well with kale in terms of texture and its being chockablock with health benefits. And we're the first to offer baby hemp leaves in the U.S., which is exciting." Of the slight, physical resemblance hemp shares with pot leaves, Satur joked, "Maybe this is a good way to get older kids to eat their vegetables."
Another partnership, with Brooklyn-based Sfoglini, has resulted in charcoal-colored, nutty-tasting dried pasta.
"As we researched hemp food products, the majority of it was as a base ingredient for shakes and smoothies," Dolgin said. "We believe the next iteration of the hemp market is to go into snack foods, to give it wider penetration into households.
"We're looking at products like ice cream and beer," he said. "We already have a pretty broad product portfolio, and we want to get even more innovative."