Editor’s note: Asheboro is rapidly finding itself on the forefront of the growing hemp industry which some experts predict could reach $20 billion to $60 billion within the next two to three years. A two-part Focus, today and Tuesday, examines how the industry has expanded here, including the recent opening of a commercial greenhouse, and what that could mean for our area.
ASHEBORO — Bob Crumley, local attorney and owner of Founders Hemp in Asheboro, is riding a wave of enthusiasm for his latest project — the reintroduction of hemp into a society that for roughly 70 years has shunned the growing and processing of the plant.
He regularly shuttles potential investors through his production facility and his retail operations. The first turns locally grown hemp into oil, snack food and nutraceuticals, foods containing health-giving additives or having medicinal benefit. The second one markets those products and more to an eager public.
Now, Crumley can showcase a new phase of his operation. In November 2018, the company’s commercial greenhouse came online.
The greenhouse is set up in a former manufacturing facility in Asheboro. Unassuming from the outside, inside is what Crumley calls “the most sophisticated growing room in North Carolina” for growing off hemp sets for the field.
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In and of itself, hemp (Cannabis sativa) is not a difficult plant to grow. In fact, some farmers seed their crop directly in the field. Those farmers are usually growing the plant for non-consumable products like rope or clothing. Founders Hemp is in the business of producing hemp for human consumption.
The process of growing hemp settings for the field is overseen by Shawn Dezern, the company’s clone expert. Dezern does his work in a shiny, insulated, silvery wonder complete with hepa air filters, ultraviolet lights to help kill bacteria and mold, a closed water system and controlled conditions requiring, in some areas, protective booties, gloves and lab coats on all the human occupants.
Months were spent to retro-fit the building to make it a top-quality growing operation.
“We don’t want to be the low-cost supplier of hemp products,” Crumley said. “We’re the one who buyers want to come and see because they want top quality.”
There is another motive for investing heavily in the latest equipment and best ideas from the start. Crumley said he decided to spend extra money upfront to help mitigate future operational costs.
The walls are heavily insulated. The furnace runs on direct current to save money. The greenhouse doesn’t use city water to cultivate its plants. It has two 5,000-gallon tanks that capture rain water. Crumley said one inch of rain captured from the roof of the building will provide enough water for the plants for four months.
Of course, the water isn’t just siphoned off the roof and dumped on the plants. It must be filtered and purified to eliminate the possibility of contamination by mold or bacteria.
In his passion for sustainability, Crumley even had the water from his AC units redirected into the water tanks. Any overrun from watering the plants is also collected and re-routed back to the water tanks for purification.
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Dezern monitors 1,200 square feet of climate-controlled growing area filled with over 400 “mother plants.” There are no daddy plants by choice, Crumley says. When mother and daddy plants come together, that leads to seeds which lead to lower values of CBD — the precious cannabidiol extract that makes hemp so valuable for consumers. Such pairing will also result in higher levels of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the part of the cannabis plant that produces a narcotic high.
In the hemp business, nobody wants that. In fact, the standard level of THC in hemp in the United States, Canada and Europe is limited to three-tenths of 1 percent.
With the growing season approaching, Dezern will soon begin taking 6-inch-tall cuttings from the tips of the mother plants. He estimates he can harvest cuttings from each plant every five days. The cuttings will “strike” — or root — in about seven to 10 days. Technically, they will be ready to go out to the field in 14 days.
Another room will house the new cuttings on shiny, new aluminum racks. They will live there under climate- and humidity-controlled conditions, developing root systems and growing stronger until it’s time to head to the fields.
Dezern tracks every individual mother plant for water and fertilizer use. He keeps meticulous records of the health and vigor of each mother plant in much the same way a livestock grower tracks cattle or other animals.
There’s a good reason for this attention to detail. Crumley puts the value of each mother plant at about $3,500, giving him an inventory of about $1.5 million in hemp plants at this operation. That value is based on an average lifespan for the plants of about three years with each mother plant producing potentially thousands of offspring before it’s time in the greenhouse is over.
Every cutting from each plant is recorded and tracked. By the end of the growing season, Dezern said he will know which mother plants produced the most viable offspring and how those offspring performed in the field and in the processing plant.
Dezern says there are enough mother plants in the greenhouse to provide sets for 100 acres of hemp production. Crumley has arrangements with many state farmers to sell them hemp plants. In return, he will buy back their production.
“That ensures they have skin in the game,” he said.
If the farmers want to grow more plants than he can currently accommodate in his production facility, Crumley says he will happily sell them the plants — as long as his contracts get covered first.
Crumley doesn’t talk about how many farmers are in his network of contractors, but he does expect to have 30-50 acres of hemp in production this year.
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One could ask, why go to the expense of investing millions of dollars of labor and material in a growing operation? Part of the reason is practicality. Crumley said, the industry is so new, normal supply chains are just not available or reliable.
““I can’t go to the commodity market and buy hemp plants,” Crumley said.
Another reason is quality control, he said. A strategic decision was made early on, he said, to control the source and supply of the product that will ultimately bear Founders Hemp’s private labels.
The final reason is necessity. Crumley said he still has not seen the top of the growth curve of demand for hemp products. There are over 100 hemp processors registered in North Carolina to date, some in production, some still ramping up. Even with all of that potential competition, Crumley isn’t worried.
“There still is not enough supply for the demand we see in the market,” he said.