WNC hemp farmers and processors collaborate to evolve the industry

woman and man stand outdoor with hemp plant in foreground.
PARTNERS IN HEMP: Hemp Magik owner Melissa Clark and farmer Aaron Dison are leveraging their shared interest in hemp to grow their independent small businesses. Photo courtesy of Dragon Gate Farm

North Carolina’s first industrial hemp research pilot program launched in spring of 2017, and since then, the number of licensed growers throughout North Carolina has doubled with representation in nearly every county.

So what’s happening with all that hemp?

“I’ve heard 15,000 uses for industrial hemp,” jokes Leonora Stefanile, a research assistant working with the Hemp Pilot Program through N.C. State University’s Department of Horticultural Science.

While many are familiar with clothing, rope and other utilitarian uses for hemp, there is a growing interest in the plant’s medicinal and culinary applications. Using mainly hemp grains and flowers, a range of food products and herbal remedies is now being created.

As demand for these nonindustrial products grows, so does the relationship between hemp farmers and processors in Western North Carolina. The hope is that the statewide hemp trials will “promote the economic interest of farmers by allowing this product to come to market,” explains Stefanile.

Brian Bullman, owner of Asheville-based Carolina Hemp Co., staked his claim in hemp’s future early. “We were the first hemp company in North Carolina,” he says, “even before the state had a hemp pilot program.”

Bullman set up a distribution business in 2014 to sell products from processors in states where industrial hemp was already legal. From his website and a Woodfin storefront, he sells everything from culinary oils and cosmetics to coffee and energy drinks produced with hemp.

Today, business is booming, he says, thanks to North Carolina’s hemp trials. “When we had the opportunity to grow our own hemp, we started Kingdom Harvest LLC to consolidate growing, processing and retail,” Bullman says.

Kingdom Harvest is a group of three interdependent local business partners, including Carolina Hemp Co., which handles sales and marketing. Asheville Botanicals is the processing arm of the operation; Kingdom of the Happy Land Farm is a 10-acre farm site in Henderson County where hemp is grown for products sold under the Kingdom Harvest brand. Later this fall, Bullman will move retail operations from his current storefront to a new location on Haywood Road in West Asheville, where he plans to continue expanding his stock of locally grown and processed hemp products.

Similiar, albeit smaller, collaborations are also ramping up in WNC as a result of hemp’s emergence on the agricultural scene. Aaron Dison is currently cultivating his first crop of specialized industrial hemp at his Dragon Gate Farm in Alexander exclusively for processor Melissa Clark, an herbalist and owner of Mars Hill-based Hemp Magik.

“I’ve got 600 hemp plants in the ground this season” says Dison, who estimates that he has a little under half of his 2-acre farm dedicated to growing two new varieties of hemp. Clark, who currently sources from four growers, encouraged him to apply for a grower’s license and try his hand at hemp when her expanding production needs forced her to seek more local growing partners. The pair selected seeds from an Oregon-based company based on Clark’s standards for her cannabidiol oil products, which she processes by extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from hemp flowers.

This geographic proximity creates a unique opportunity whereby farmers and hemp processors can collaborate while still maintaining separate operations. So while Dison is excited about the possibilities hemp may hold for his farm, he continues to use other parts of his land to cultivate fruits and vegetables, he says, so he can “go with the flow, to see how this season goes.”

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