It’s been seven months since North Carolina passed legislation allowing industrial hemp to be grown in the state for the first time in nearly half a century, and excitement is growing.
But an agricultural industry doesn’t bounce right back after such a long hiatus. Farmers must search out the best seeds and growing practices for their land. Hemp processing plants must be built within a reasonable distance of growers. And government regulators must be satisfied that hemp isn’t providing cover for its psychedelic cousin, recreational marijuana.
Senate Bill 313, which legalized hemp production in North Carolina and established the Industrial Hemp Commission, said the regulatory body wouldn’t become active until donations totaling at least $200,000 had been received. Hemp industry advocates, including Asheville-based consultant Timothy Sadler, mounted a statewide grassroots fundraising campaign, and on May 11, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler received the required funds.
Now, however, the commissioners must be appointed, regulations drafted and public comment on them solicited and reviewed. If all goes well, says Eric Mathis of BioRegen Innovations, a farmer-owned seed cooperative, the state Legislature will approve the rules in time for farmers to plant North Carolina’s first commercial hemp crop next year.
And while farmers representing over 100,000 acres of agricultural land in the eastern part of the state form the core of BioRegen’s initial membership, Mathis says Western North Carolina has an important role to play in the emerging hemp industry. Asheville already boasts a strong medicinal herb and nutraceutical industry, which he believes positions this area as a prospective processing center for hemp-based foods, supplements and other wellness products. And for farmers in the region, he continues, industrial hemp could eventually replace tobacco as a high-yield crop for small parcels.
Although industrial hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, smoking it doesn’t produce a high. Industrial hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the substance that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects. Even so, the federal government lumps hemp in with marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning the plant’s production and use fall under the watchful eye of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
According to a 2015 report to Congress, the DEA remains concerned that commercial hemp cultivation could hinder efforts to detect illegal production of high-THC marijuana, complicating the enforcement of drug laws.
Nonetheless, federal legislation passed in 2014 allows states to create their own regulatory systems to manage industrial hemp cultivation. Over half of all states now permit farmers to grow the crop, says Lauren Stansbury, public relations manager for the national Hemp History Week campaign, which was launched in 2009.
Hemp History Week
At its May 10 meeting, City Council proclaimed June 6-12 Hemp History Week in Asheville. “It’s long past time that we returned to the days of our Colonial ancestors in embracing a crop that is really good for the world,” Council member Cecil Bothwell declared, noting that he’s advocated legalizing industrial hemp cultivation for at least 30 years.
Asheville’s Hemp History Week will include a Thursday, June 9, showing of the documentary Bringing It Home at the Grail Movie House. Created by North Carolina filmmakers Linda Booker and Blaire Johnson, the film was inspired by Asheville resident Anthony Brenner’s quest to develop hemp building techniques. In 2010, he constructed the nation’s first house made primarily of hemp. A panel discussion will follow the screening, and hemp-based treats such as hemp ale from One World Brewing, hemp milk ice cream from The Hop and hemp hummus from Roots will be served.
Industrial hemp, Sadler told Council, is “the love child of economic development and environmental protection,” citing the crop’s ability to improve soil quality and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide while yielding a wide variety of valuable products.
Sadler introduced Will Oseroff, founder of the Blue Ridge Hemp Co., which manufactures products infused with cannabidiol. CBD, he explained, is a nonpsychoactive substance found in the cannabis plant; it has many therapeutic properties and can help relieve chronic pain. Selling, purchasing and using CBD became legal in North Carolina last August.
Entrepreneur James Hammel told Council about his efforts to develop a state-of-the-art facility in Asheville to process raw hemp into various kinds of powder, oil and meal. Although he’s lived in Black Mountain for eight years, his manufacturing operation is in upstate New York. TerraVare processes ancient grains like chia, quinoa, amaranth and others for use in foods, supplements, body care and animal care products. Hammel hopes to relocate the plant to West Asheville by early next year and add hemp processing to TerraVare’s capabilities.
“This area has a deep appreciation for holistic wellness and food products,” notes Hammel, making it an ideal location for TerraVare. Asheville also boasts a well-educated workforce, and prospective employees can take advantage of food science and manufacturing technology courses at local institutions to train for skilled positions at the new facility.
Hammel expects his business to create between 50 and 100 jobs over the next several years. In addition to the skilled positions, he’s exploring collaborating with the nonprofit Green Opportunities and the Department of Veterans Affairs to train entry-level employees. And though Hammel hasn’t yet explored living wage certification, he says he believes in sharing with employees and helping them become company owners and leaders. Certification, he says, “will be a good conversation to have when we’re located here.” Hammel’s handful of New York-based employees, he reports, don’t intend to relocate with the company.
Hammel stresses that his plans aren’t final and “a lot of things still have to happen,” but he says he’s signed a letter of agreement with a building owner in West Asheville. He needs a specialized type of industrial space to comply with his operation’s strict manufacturing standards. “TerraVare is certified as achieving good manufacturing practices, as well as being organic, gluten-free, kosher and non-GMO. Not just any building will work for those requirements,” he explains.
To be ready to process the 2017 hemp crop, notes Hammel, his plans will have to come together quickly. “We have to have the facility in place and functional by February. It’s quite an endeavor to move some pretty big machines.” His largest piece of equipment, a packaging machine, nearly fills a semitrailer all by itself.
To add hemp processing capability to his existing operations, Hammel will buy a dehulling machine, which extracts the heart of the hemp seed. TerraVare plans to process hemp grown by the farmers of the BioRegen cooperative, which Mathis says he hopes will eventually represent farmers in seven Southeastern states. Thus, comments Hammel, “Asheville is more centrally located than people think.”
And though his focus will be on processing raw hemp, Hammel also expects to continue working with ancient grains from a variety of sources. Having a diversified portfolio of suppliers, he explains, is just sound business practice. Eventually, Hammel expects to add CBD processing capabilities, but initially, he’ll focus on hemp-based food and supplement products.
Last year, the Las Vegas-based company Hemp Inc. purchased one of the nation’s only decortication machines — a specialized piece of equipment used in processing hemp for fiber — and installed it at a subsidiary in Spring Hope, N.C.
Step by step
Eric Mathis of BioRegen sees unlimited potential for the hemp industry to branch out into food, apparel, bioplastics and even energy markets. But pilot growing programs conducted last year, he concedes, yielded disappointing results due to higher-than-normal rainfall. Nonetheless, he says North Carolina offers ideal conditions for growing hemp, including loamy soil, high humidity and warm temperatures. The state’s sophisticated agricultural infrastructure and savvy farmers are also important assets, he continues.
BioRegen member Bert James, a farmer who’s the president of Homegrown Agriculture in Bethel, believes North Carolina could also become a center for developing different strains of industrial hemp seed. The state’s diverse climate, he maintains, could give seed breeders an optimal testing ground “for adapting their seed to a variety of environmental conditions.”
Most of the hemp seed now available to American farmers comes from Canada, which has been developing its industry since 1994. But while the Canadians are happy to sell seed to the U.S., it’s not yet clear, says Mathis, that those varieties will produce the same yields here. Even getting the seed to American farmers has proved tricky at times: The DEA has held up some shipments for additional testing, causing farmers to receive their seed after the recommended time for planting. BioRegen, he continues, is working closely with the federal agency to ensure that its members can get seed in the ground next spring.
Meghan Baker, a Buncombe County agricultural extension agent who specializes in small farms, says she’s received a steady stream of calls since last November from local farmers interested in hemp as a potential crop. This area, she says, is home to innovative small farmers who are eager to explore new markets. The trick will be figuring out the right cultivation methods and varieties for WNC’s smaller farms and hilly or mountainous terrain. “We don’t have a lot of flat bottomland that’s accessible to cultivating or harvesting equipment,” she explains, so local farmers will need to find niche markets that are a good fit for their smaller yields.
Farmers are also asking about such logistical considerations as optimal row spacing, planting depth, soil fertility and strategies for managing pests and weeds. “It’s virgin territory,” says Baker. “We know this crop was historically grown across the U.S., but that knowledge base has been lost.”
As with any new crop, Baker and her colleagues are advising farmers to start small. “We do want people to think ahead to new crops,” she says, but she also cautions growers to move slowly and make sure they have a plan for marketing their harvests. Baker says she expects that the state’s Agriculture Department and land-grant universities will launch pilot growing programs in 2017 to begin the research that will help extension agents answer farmers’ questions.
Mathis, however, emphasizes the critical role farmers have played in getting the new industry started. “They have spearheaded the fundraising effort to establish the regulatory commission, and they’re moving ahead in the face of the risks inherent in a developing market.”
Still, says Hammel, it won’t happen overnight. “This is a process, and it’s going to take some time. While there is a lot of excitement around industrial hemp, there are some technical issues we need to work through.
“Hopefully, this will be a big economic boost for the farmers who’ve struggled for the past 20 years.”