Hemp: The new cash crop?

State could be leader in fiber production

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SPRING HOPE — Tony Finch likes the idea of carrying his crop to market and getting paid on the spot.

The fourth-generation Nash County farmer is one of about 100 farmers in North Carolina with permits from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp.

“It will take the place of tobacco,” Finch said. “My entire operation will be around hemp.”

Actually, what Finch is growing is kenaf, a cousin of the hemp plant that is in the hibiscus family.

But any motorist driving by Finch’s farm might be fooled into thinking there are 170 acres of marijuana growing there.

“It looks like marijuana and it smells like marijuana,” Finch said. “It has a little stickiness to it, but it won’t get you high at all.”

In accordance with an act to modify the industrial hemp research program ratified in July 2016, the hemp Finch is growing has 0.3 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

“There is no THC in this stuff that will do a thing for you,” Finch said. “We get all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks, as some people would look at it.”

This is the third year that Finch has grown kenaf.

“It’s not a hard crop to grow,” Finch said. “It grows well on all soils, even hard redland. It grows well on clay soils as well. It’s a very hardy plant.”

Every part of the plant is used.

“None’s wasted. Less waste out of a product that you’re growing, that’s more money for you,” Finch said. “You’re not losing any of that product. You get a little bit of money for everything.

At the end of the day, the farmer’s got to make money too.”

Finch sells his product to Industrial Hemp Manufacturing, LLC, in Spring Hope, which is a subsidiary of Hemp Inc.

David Schmitt, chief operating officer of the 70,000 square-foot plant purchased in Nash County in 2014, said there are about 25,000 products made from hemp.

The company buys hemp, a super-absorbant natural material, wholesale from farmers and produces loss-circulation materials used as an additive for drilling fluids used the oil and gas industry.

“Our customers are global,” Schmitt said. “I’m working on projects today on five different continents. If they are drilling for gas and oil, they are using an LCM.”

The United States is the largest hemp-importing nation in the entire world, Schmitt said.

“It’s our vision to make the United States the largest exporting nation of hemp-related products in the world,” Schmitt said.

According to Schmitt, about $20 million has been invested in the Spring Hope facility that employs about 60 people.

“We elected to concentrate on the milling operation and our CBD extraction unit,” Schmitt said.

CBD, or hemp oil, is widely used in the treatment of a variety of illnesses.

“Both of those are done and both of them are operational. Now we will be putting our time into getting the decortication line operational,” Schmitt said.

The decortication machine, a $15 million item, is one of only five in the world.

When operational, it will have the capability of processing 40 million pounds of hemp in a year.

“This is the largest hemp manufacturing facility in the United States,” Schmitt said.

North Carolina, once a leader in the production of hemp, is poised to regain that stature in the coming years, Schmitt said.

“I see North Carolina within just two to three years of being the leading hemp-growing state in the nation,” Schmitt said. “I attribute that statement to the fact that today, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that has the infrastructure right here. We have the ability today to process 80 million pounds per year, and I can ramp that up pretty quickly.”

Finch had been a tobacco farmer for years and really appreciates the fact that he can use existing farm infrastructure to make the transition.

“The flue-cured tobacco barn is a perfect place to dry hemp,” Finch said as he swung open the doors to a barn to reveal thousands of kenaf tops drying upside down. “If you have some tobacco barns that can be repurposed to dry this, you are ahead of the game.”
The kenaf is very simple to harvest with the use of sickle bar mowers that have been around North Carolina farms for years.

“It cuts it down really well. You let it lay in the field and it will go through a retting process for five to six weeks. That’s where the actual fibers on the outside start to naturally separate from the inner core of the stalk, which makes it easier for the decorticating machine to separate the two,” Finch said. “So when you see this crop laying in the field, we’re not letting it lay there. There is a reason why we cut it and let it lay that long. After it’s gone through its retting process, it’s as simple as raking it into windrows like you would hay and going out there with our large square baler and bailing it up into the product that you have here today.”

Finch said it’s good to know that he can grow a product and deliver it to a local facility right in his hometown.

“It’s making jobs in my hometown and it’s helping our little local economy,” Finch said. “This is going to be a go-to crop for me and a whole lot of other farmers. I can tell you that the golden days of making money in tobacco are gone and it’s a sad thing. I know some people who have gone out in the past because they didn’t have this option. If they had had this option, they might still be in business. They didn’t have to have a farm sale and sell all their equipment and all. That’s just sad to me, because family farming is just a way of life. It’s a lifestyle. I think it’s going to be a good thing for a lot of farmers who are having a tough time right now.”

Schmitt said hemp has just got to get beyond the stigma of being tied to marijuana, which has a much higher THC level of 20 to 25 percent.

“Nobody’s out there stealing it and smoking it,” Schmitt said. “It’s not marijuana. It’s hemp.”

“There’s a lot of people all over the country helping us to get these laws changed so we can help the family farmers survive and make enough profit to feed the younguns, and grow the farm and buy the machinery so they can survive. We just need some help from the federal government so we can relax these laws a little bit. My goal is by the end of next year to get hemp descheduled. It has no business being in the same classification as cocaine and heroin. It’s unbelievable. But it takes a long time to get these laws changed. We’re trying to help the farmers, the small family farmers throughout the country prosper.”

Hemp Inc. University is having a symposium on hemp and hemp processes on Sept. 30 at Peachtree Hills Country Club in Spring Hope. The event will include a tour of the industrial hemp manufacturing site. For more information, call Rick Rainbold, of Hemp Inc. at 704-965-8935.