Nonprofit launches hemp testing services for WNC farmers, processors

TESTING 1,2,3: Matthew Robison, director of research and development at the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory, prepares to analyze a vial of dried hemp-flower extract using a gas chromatograph. The instrument will separate target cannabinoids and generate data on what amounts of each are present in the sample. Robison established the new testing methodology in response to the needs of local hemp farmers and producers. Photo by Stephan Pruitt Photography

A new laboratory service launching this month is focused on nurturing Western North Carolina’s fast-growing industrial hemp sector. As of Oct. 4, the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory, a program of the nonprofit Bent Creek Institute that operates in partnership with The North Carolina Arboretum, is the first organization in the area to offer botanical testing services for hemp growers and processors.

The laboratory’s ability to do quick-turnaround testing for cannabinoid profiles is being made possible by new analytical equipment obtained through a donation from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Dana Stonestreet Donor-Advised Fund along with special testing methodology developed by USBSL’s director of research and development, Matthew Robison. Analysis is also available for pesticides, heavy metals, microbiological impurities and more.

New methodology

USBSL has focused on supporting natural products businesses and medicinal herb growers since its inception in 2012. But Robison’s approach to hemp testing is unique compared with other types of botanical analyses. His methodology uses gas chromatography to show both acidic and neutral forms of cannabinoids, which is especially relevant to hemp growers as acidic compounds are more common in fresh hemp plants, says USBSL director Amanda Vickers.

“Basically, [the test methodology] is responsive to what we understand farmers and other small businesses in the industry need, which is differentiating between THC acid and Delta 9 THC,” explains Vickers, noting that legal hemp contains 0.3% Delta 9 THC after decarboxylation — a chemical reaction that happens when cannabis is processed with heat.

“This is what happens during a normal gas chromatography run. But what we’re doing in ours is we’re protecting the THC acid so that when we process, it gets reported as its own number, and it doesn’t get decarboxylated and lumped in with the Delta 9 THC.”

Despite the unique approach, Vickers says, the new service bears many similarities to the work USBSL has been doing with medicinal herbs for the last seven years. “The thing with botanicals is that every plant is kind of its own universe in a way, in terms of determining what’s important to test in that plant,” she says.

She notes that USBSL’s hemp profiles are intended to help growers achieve target amounts of CBD and identify amounts of other cannabinoids in their floral crops for maximum market value, which is different from the compliance testing overseen by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to ensure that plants don’t exceed the legal THC limit. “When the state does its testing, it’s only testing for THC,” she says.

She adds that beyond offering a local lab for testing for cannabinoid levels, USBSL has valuable knowledge about regulatory compliance within the dietary supplements industry. “The thing about hemp is that it’s not yet approved as a dietary supplement, so the regulations are not really well-defined at this point,” she says. “So what we’re hoping to bring to the table is experience with dietary supplements that helps the industry follow safe, tried-and-true guidelines so that we can be ready for a fully legalized, fully regulated industry for hemp — and hopefully for cannabis down the road.”

Unique opportunity

Margaret Bloomquist, a research associate with the N.C. State University department of horticulture science at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, provided samples from MHCREC’s hemp field trials to USBSL during its development stages to help establish equipment uses and testing standards. In turn, USBSL’s work with hemp will generate data for MHCREC’s trials, which study the effects of genetics, harvest time and environmental conditions on floral hemp crops.

USBSL’s location and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status position it to be of particular help to WNC hemp farmers, says Bloomquist. “Right now, our closest [testing] facilities are private and for-profit and are in the Triangle area,” she says. “They have a unique opportunity in terms of location, and they really have the goal of listening to the natural products sector in this area. The bottom line isn’t to make money; the bottom line is to work with the growers.”

She adds that the service could also bring an element of steadiness to a booming, nascent industry where many growers are new to hemp and the laboratory analysis process required of medicinal herbs. “It’s huge and it’s like the Wild West,” she says. “So beacons of stability at existing institutions and for testing right now are really stabilizing for the industry.”

Local hemp grower and processor Brook Sheffield, who operates PhytoFox Farms with co-owner Frank Taylor, echoes these sentiments. “We’re currently having to send off our samples, a lot of times out of state, because the current state labs are full up with customers,” says Sheffield. “We’re just excited to get acid testing from people we believe in and we can trust in our local region.”

Sheffield was harvesting his floral hemp fields in Weaverville in early October when he spoke with Xpress and planned to send samples to USBSL for analysis that week. He expressed excitement about the program’s proposed two-day turnaround time, compared with some labs that can take anywhere from a week to two weeks to send results.

“Much like when you harvest grapes and you’re looking for peak sugar content, we’re looking for peak cannabinoids,” he explains. “So if you’re waiting two weeks to get your report back during harvest season, the report doesn’t do you any good.” Ideally, he says, in a business where constantly changing weather conditions make time of the essence, he and other farmers would love to eventually see same-day turnaround.

The cost for testing with USBSL is roughly comparable to testing with other facilities. Sheffield estimates that other labs charge about $60-$70 per sample and, according to Vickers, USBSL’s introductory price for a cannabinoid profile is $75.

Vickers says she sees the addition of the new service as a way to help the area’s small-scale medicinal herb farmers leverage hemp cultivation as a path to a sustainable livelihood. “We’ve been here as an economic accelerator for natural products for seven years,” she says. “And this is kind of like the new ‘golden leaf,’ the new crop that I think is actually making this dream of alternative agriculture-based economy into a potential reality, even more than it already was.”

For more on the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory, visit usbsl.org. For details on USBSL’s cannabinoid profile services, contact laboratory manager Rolando Boyer at 828-333-5124 or email USBSL at support@usbsl.org. 

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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One thought on “Nonprofit launches hemp testing services for WNC farmers, processors

  1. Barry G.

    Thank you for an excellent story about a forward looking testing lab!

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