As tobacco continues to struggle as North Carolina’s cash crop, local farmers are setting aside pre-conceived notions and turning to hemp in hopes this ‘miracle plant’ cures their economic woes
By Billy Liggett | Additional reporting by Kate Stoneburner
They crowd into the meeting room at the Harnett County Agricultural Center in Lillington — some tracking in dirt off their boots, having been in the field just a half hour earlier. There’s curiosity in their expressions. A little skepticism.
A lot of hope.
These 200-plus farmers — men and women from families who have fueled the region’s once-thriving tobacco industry for generations — are here for hemp; the “miracle plant” that has 50,000-plus known uses, from paper to medicine … oil to concrete. The U.S. is in the midst of a hemp revolution — the industry topped $1 billion for the first time in 2018. North Carolina is one of 24 states where it’s grown, and the state is poised to become a leader in the industry.
And if this meeting is any indication, local farmers want in.
“We are just beginning to tap the resources of what hemp can do and what we can do with it. The sky’s the limit,” says Ryan Patterson, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer who started growing hemp in 2017 and a year later founded Broadway Hemp Company — one of the largest growers in the state — with Rudy Mullis, a veteran of the nutraceutical industry. “It’s a huge opportunity for North Carolina. We have the infrastructure in this state to handle a lot of acres. I see nothing but positives for the farmer, if they’re willing to do it the right way.”
In 2017, Patterson’s farm became the 38th licensed hemp grower in the state. Today, there are more than 700, with 8,628 acres of land (much of that former tobacco fields) being used for their crops. More than 3.5 million square feet of greenhouse space is being used for hemp in North Carolina. The demand is so strong, the state is having a hard time keeping up with license applications — on March 20, a bill was introduced to the General Assembly to create a North Carolina Hemp Commission to better regulate the industry and keep up with the growing interest.
Meanwhile, tobacco struggles. The Wilson Times reported in February that tobacco growers in this region are facing cuts from 30 to 80 percent from leaf dealers this year, due in part to tariffs and the steady decline of cigarette smokers nationwide. One grower told the Times this year could mark the smallest tobacco crop in modern U.S. history.
The farmers at the Lillington workshop feel this pain. To them, hemp represents a different kind of remedy.
Rudy Mullis first paid a visit to Patterson’s farm in 2017 to talk about his patent — a hydroponic growing device that does wonders for strawberries. The two learned that they were actually fourth cousins … Mullis’ mother was a Patterson, and he’d known the family for years. During the course of their conversation, Patterson revealed to Mullis that he was getting into hemp. Mullis was immediately interested, pulling out a bottle of CBD oil from his pocket and swearing by its results.
Less than a year later, the two men launched Broadway Hemp Company, today one of the largest hemp growing operations in North Carolina. Their company grows more than 50,000 square feet of hemp under greenhouses (and 40 acres outdoors), producing 200,000 clones to distribute to other farmers in 2018. They’re on pace to more than double that output this year. Patterson and Mullis, who has over 20 years of experience in the industry, also produce their own CBD products in their warehouse/laboratory in Sanford. Their hemp oil extracts and capsules can be found in drug stores and natural food retailers across the state.
The business partners shared more than just an interest and a keen business sense in launching Broadway Hemp Company. They shared a “reason,” as well.
“I’m a six-year colon cancer survivor, and CBD has kept me above ground,” Mullis says with conviction. “CBD dropped my CEA [serum carcinoembryonic antigen] numbers, which surprised my doctors. And when I do have to go back for chemotherapy, it helps me with the nausea. It’s also a great anti-inflammatory … I don’t know what I would have done without it.”
Patterson’s reason was his father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement — in 2016. His first two prescribed medications seemed to make the problem worse, and the third made him sick to his stomach.
“I told my mom there had to be something better out there,” Patterson recalls. “He was being treated like a lab rat, and nothing was working. So I began a little research and learned about CBD, and the first place we discovered was this little store down in Wilmington that sold it. We drove down there on a Sunday afternoon after church and bought some, and three days later, he could already feel the difference. Three days. It didn’t ‘fix it,’ but there was a difference.
“So then immediately I learn North Carolina is looking to adopt a hemp program, and that’s what got me into it. Less than two years later, here we are. It’s catching on.”
It also has more and more people asking questions … which makes for the perfect time to answer the big one: Is hemp marijuana? The short answer is “no.” Marijuana cannot be grown or sold legally in North Carolina.
But hemp and marijuana are related — they’re more like cousins, albeit closer related than Patterson and Mullis.
Both are cannabis. The two are indistinguishable by appearance. Hemp, however, is grown with barely traceable amounts of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can make you “high.”
Marijuana typically contains 3 to 15 percent THC on a dry-weight basis, while industrial hemp contains less than 1 percent. In North Carolina, industrial hemp must contain less than .3 percent THC. Anything more than that, and farmers here face having their entire crop burned by the state.
So while it looks, feels, smells and grows like marijuana, hemp is not marijuana. The joke in the industry is that you could smoke an entire field of hemp and not feel even a little bit “high.” In fact, your lungs would give out long before any mental effect takes place.
George Washington grew it. Thomas Jefferson grew it. Benjamin Franklin grew it. The U.S. $10 bill at one time featured farmers harvesting hemp. That bill itself was printed on hemp paper.
But hemp’s history goes much further back in time than the American Revolution — historians believe it was the earliest plant to be cultivated for textile fiber as early as 8,000 B.C. in the Middle East. It made its way to Europe in 1,200 B.C., and the Chinese were using hemp to make paper in 150 B.C.
Hemp existed in the Americas long before the Europeans arrived. By the late 1700s, it had become so important to the new United States, that it was considered a patriotic duty to grow hemp (citizens were also allowed to pay their taxes with it). Many of the Founding Fathers grew it and advocated its uses and benefits; most notably Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Hemp’s nutrient-rich seeds made it a good food source, and it remained the fiber of choice when it came to supplying fabrics and paper for 200 years. In 1916, the USDA published findings showing that hemp produced four times the paper per acre than trees.
Its downfall in this country began, in a way, with the invention of the cotton gin, which made cotton a much easier crop to mass harvest than labor-intensive hemp.
The real killer, however, was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a heavy fee on all cannabis sales (including non-psychoactive hemp), heavily discouraging its production. Many believe the crop was also linked to pot in “propaganda” created by companies invested in synthetic textiles or from lumber companies that viewed hemp as their biggest threat.
Once on the verge of becoming a billion-dollar industry, hemp was practically destroyed in a year’s time.
After a brief resurgence spurred on by the need for materials during World War II and Henry Ford’s experimental car body made with hemp fiber — which was 10 times stronger than steel — the 1970 Controlled Substances Act classified hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug, which imposed strict regulations on the cultivation of industrial hemp as well as marijuana.
Nearly 50 years later, hemp is making a comeback as an industrial crop. North Carolina farmers just finished their second year producing industrial hemp as part of a regulated pilot research program — as of March, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported nearly 700 licensed industrial hemp growers in the state. Another 100-plus farmers were awaiting approval for their licenses as of this publication.
By comparison, there were barely 100 hemp farms in the state when the pilot program was launched.
On March 20, three state senators introduced The North Carolina Farm Act of 2019, a bill to expand the North Carolina Hemp Commission, implementing recent federal laws to better regulate the state’s growing industry. The Tarheel State is already estimated to have the sixth-most acres of hemp production in the U.S.
Many experts are optimistic about hemp’s future in the U.S. Some estimate that the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products in nine submarkets: agriculture; textiles; recycling; automotive; furniture; food/nutrition/beverages; paper; construction materials; and personal care. For construction materials, such as hempcrete (a mixture of hemp hurds and lime products), hemp is used as a lightweight insulating material.
While the 2018 Farm Bill — introduced by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell — opened many doors for farmers looking to work with and experiment with hemp, it is still a very tightly regulated product. The standards are rigid for a reason: so that farmers and entrepreneurs are encouraged to expand their perspective and consider industrial utilities of hemp, rather than focusing on the comparatively small market for recreational marijuana.
THE SAVIOR CROP
North Carolina tobacco farmers are used to dealing with weather problems, plant diseases, weed infestations and price swings. Maybe that’s why an increasing number are willing to take on the challenge of growing hemp.
Because of tobacco’s steady decline — and its uncertain future (vaping is popular, but that may not be enough) — hemp’s sudden rise in this state couldn’t have come at a better time.
Still, farmers are justifiably cautious when it comes to risking their livelihoods by switching crops. Those who attended the March Industrial Hemp Workshop in Lillington were able to voice their concerns, with state employees on hand to answer questions. The workshop was standing-room only — the interest is real.
Don Nicholson, a regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, was hesitant to proclaim hemp their economic cure-all. In fact, Nicholson and Paul Adams, fertilizer field supervisor for hemp applications and field inspection for the state department, were quick to temper expectations during their presentations.
“If anybody came in here thinking it was gonna be easy, it ain’t,” Nicholson told the room. He said the pitfalls of hemp are just as present as with other plants. Clones are expensive. Pesticide options are limited. Insects, weeds and diseases can render a harvest useless, and certain soil types aren’t a good fit. Plus, curious neighbors may confuse hemp crops with marijuana and steal entire plants (or perhaps worse, stop by their fields and take selfies with them).
Just getting a crop in the ground is a challenge, he said. Permit applications require a background check, proof of taxable farming income and coordinates of their crop locations. Farmers must closely monitor and sample their crops to make sure that their THC content is low enough to be legal.
Adams, who is responsible for approving THC tests before harvesting, said about 10 percent of all North Carolina hemp crops test high, and failing crops typically miss the mark by 0.5 percent or lower. When a crop fails the THC test, regardless of the margins, the state has no choice but to destroy it.
“If the THC content in the plant is too high, you’re going to get a nasty letter from me and we’re going to have a bonfire. And nobody will be singing Kumbaya around it,” said Adams. “We want you to pass. It’s a lot of money to lose — we don’t like having that conversation.”
While the impending North Carolina Farm Act of 2019 would help expedite backlogged applications and grow the state’s industry, farmers were warned that switching from a typical cash crop to hemp still won’t be easy. “It’s expensive,” Adams said. “You’re probably looking at — on the low end — eight or nine grand to get it in the field.”
Patterson agrees that the start-up is pricey. The big up-front cost, he says, is about $12,000 to $14,000 an acre to buy plants, raise the crop, harvest it and dry it. However, he’s more optimistic about the chances of farmers who are willing to take a chance.
“If it’s done right, there’s the potential — and I’m being conservative — of getting a return of about $30,000 to $35,000 an acre,” he says. “And what excites me most about the potential here is North Carolina is built for this. We already have the infrastructure to handle a lot of acres. We have greenhouses all over the state that can grow transplants. Transplanters that do tobacco can do hemp. It takes the same cultivators. We have tobacco barns for curing that are perfect for drying the flower material for hemp. We have a lot of things in this state that they simply don’t have in other parts of the country.”
Keith Dunn and Wesley Johnson, owners of East Coast Hemp Supply in Dunn, also got into the game in 2017. Their mission is to help jumpstart farmers into the business with clones and mother plants, and they plan to open a retail store in Dunn that their employees are calling “a Walmart for hemp.” Selling plant nutrients, growing equipment and everything necessary for hemp farming, the shop will also carry everything from CBD oil products to hemp pasta and hemp-based concrete.
Their operation is smaller — the single greenhouse at East Coast Hemp Supply is home to more than 130 plants, which barely take up half the building. They leased property from a tobacco farmer, installed metal halide lights in the 300-foot long structure and set their sights on growing their business and reviving an industry.
Harnett County already has four major industrial hemp growers that have converted over primarily from tobacco and have remechanized their equipment for hemp.
Across the state, research programs have begun to broaden the scope of hemp’s uses. North Carolina State University has been involved in pilot hemp growing initiatives from the beginning. Over the past two years, N.C. State researchers, graduate students and N.C. Cooperative Extension agents have been working on hemp-related research topics from using hemp seed protein for poultry feeds to using hemp fiber in car parts.
The General Assembly seems to be trending toward helping the farmer find hemp’s potential. North Carolina still lags behind other states when it comes to marijuana laws — legalizing the currently illegal drug could potentially provide an even bigger boost to the state’s economy.
But Patterson isn’t concerned about marijuana’s status here. Hemp, he says, is the future.
“THC has been shown in some cases to help people with cancer [deal with pain]. It can help bridge the gaps with CBD receptors and make the cannabis more effective,” he says. “But by and large, the medicinal part of the plant is the CBD. We’re just beginning to tap the resources of what hemp can do. Pharmacists, scientists, researchers … they’re all saying there’s a lot of potential here. Every week, I hear stories from somebody on how it’s helped them with everything from Parkinson’s to anxiety. Veterans with [post traumatic stress disorder] are using it. We’re giving it to pets to stop their seizures. It all seems unreal sometimes.”
“Tobacco is going away, slowly but surely,” adds Mullis. “Hemp will be a natural replacement for tobacco. This used to be the No. 1 hemp state in the country — I think we’ll climb back to that. We’ve got good soil and good farmers. This is a good place to be.”
Everybody has their story.
Puja Wentworth — a nutrition-based chiropractic physician, self-proclaimed “hemp doctor” and owner of Well Centered Wellness, Well Centered Weight Loss and Puja’s Apothecary (offices in Sanford, Apex and Swansboro) — has quite a story.
When she was 5, her father picked her up from kindergarten on a motorcycle. The accident that followed left her as a left-foot amputee. A few years later, she suffered a brain injury when she fell into a swimming pool. At 8, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. As an adult, she contracted lyme disease from a tick bite in 2013.
Her husband, John Peters, found out shortly after his 40th birthday that he had a duck egg-sized pituitary tumor behind his left eye, a tumor that had been growing since he was about 10. It required not one, but two brain surgeries.
The two discovered hemp products and CBD in 2012. She says the effects were nothing short of miraculous. The two became instant advocates. Today, the first thing patients in Dr. Puja’s Apothecary in Apex see when they enter her office is a large oak cabinet with a variety of CBD oils, capsules, lotions and even pet treats.
CBD is what’s getting the most headlines nationally, but there are other elements to cannabis that have other positive effects on the human body. Wentworth is making it her mission to spread the word about the endocannabinoid system — considered one of the most important physiological systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health — not only through her patients but at conferences, through social media and any other contact she has with people seeking a more natural form of healing.
“I went to medical school, and I was never taught about the endocannabinoid system,” she says. “So why did every medical student from my era and before go through all this training and not learn about this? I have patients today who tell me their doctors argue with them that it’s not a real thing. Yet, there are doctors who consider it the most important medical discovery ever.”
CBD is blowing up faster than science can keep up with it (and faster than states can get their people together to regulate it). When beverage behemoths Coca-Cola and Pepsi make news for expressing interest in joining “the craze,” then it’s safe to say CBD has officially arrived.
“I call it panacea from the heavens,” says Wentworth, who lives in Sanford and has worked with Patterson and Mullis since they formed Broadway Hemp Company. “In fact, it sounds too good to be true. How can something help take my pain away, help balance my mood, make me a better parent or spouse and make me not want to turn to addictive opioids? I celebrate with my clients who’ve had opioid addictions when they are able to move forward with more natural healing.”
In her presentations, Wentworth points out hemp’s history and asks her audience to consider the reasons it fell out of public favor in the 20th century. Big tobacco. Big pharma. The lumber industry. (She finds irony in the fact that tobacco and pharmaceutical companies are turning toward cannabis now). She believes hemp and the human body were made for each other, and decades of not using it has led to many of the health problems humans face today despite the wonders of other modern medicines.
“We have an endocannabinoid deficiency in this world, because for so long it’s been demonized,” she says. “We need to take a hold of this as if we’ve forgotten a key nutrient in our lives. If we treated Vitamin C the same way we’ve treated this, we’d all have scurvy.”
Wentworth says the key for hemp’s success — in agriculture, in health and in the tens of thousands of other ways that it’s used — is overcoming the stigma. Hemp is not pot, she reiterates. It’s also not tobacco … this little green plant that loves North Carolina soil actually has benefits.
“I’ve been doing this for six years,” she says. “I have countless patients who have wonderful experiences with it. Whole families are using it. Dogs are using it. I like to provide hope to people, because there’s a lot of hopelessness out there.”
HEMP vs. MARIJUANA
Marijuana: THC level: 3-15%
Hemp: THC level: < 1%
Marijuana and industrial hemp are different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. Marijuana typically contains 3 to 15 percent THC on a dry-weight basis, while industrial hemp contains less than 1 percent. Most developed countries that permit hemp cultivation require use of varieties with less than 0.3 percent THC.
The two are indistinguishable by appearance. Industrial hemp can be grown as a fiber and/or seed crop. Marijuana varieties are grown for their leaves and flower buds, and therefore are grown under low-density conditions to maximize branching.