North Carolina farmers are harvesting the first legal hemp crop in decades, and the state is poised for a substantial increase in production for 2018, according to David Schmitt, chief operating officer of Industrial Hemp Manufacturing, LLC.
North Carolina Brings Back A Valuable Crop
Hemp hasn’t been grown legally in North Carolina since the 1940s, when the federal government briefly encouraged its cultivation to satisfy the need for natural fibers during World War ll.
Schmitt’s company and its parent, Hemp, Inc., have recently begun operations at a new 70,000 square foot multipurpose hemp processing mill in Spring Hope, North Carolina. The facility, which is North America’s largest, is able to process hemp for industrial products as well as other cultivars grown for their CBD-rich flowers.
Prior to joining Industrial Hemp Manufacturing, Schmitt owned a company that produced loss circulation materials (LCMs) using a plant called kenaf, a species of hibiscus.
LCMs are used by the oil and gas drilling industry to fill cracks and fissures in rock as a well is being drilled to prevent the loss of drilling fluids. A 1999 U.S. Navy study found kenaf to be the most absorbent natural product available, making it an excellent choice for LCMs.
About five years ago, Schmitt met Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp Inc. One evening while talking about business, Perlowin asked Schmitt if hemp would be suitable for the production of LCMs. The core of hemp stems, or hurds as they are known, are nearly as absorbent as kenaf.
“I don’t know, I’ve only made LCMs with kenaf…but I daggum sure will find out,” recalled Schmitt, with true Southern charm. To test the idea, Schmitt ordered a bale of hemp stalks from Europe.
He asked the supplier to label the shipment as hay, and it slipped right through customs and was delivered to Schmitt’s front door without incident. Schmitt used the hemp in a batch of LCMs, and asked a large oil company to test it alongside the original kenaf-based product. When the results were analyzed, the hemp LCMs were found to perform just as well as kenaf.
At the new mill, a machine called a decorticator will separate the hurds from the bark, which contains the hemp fibers. The fiber will be sold to the automobile industry for use in textiles such as headliners, and composites used for car parts such as door inner panels and trunk components.
The facility will also include a super-critical CO2 extractor, which will be used to harvest CBD. Hemp Inc. is growing a variety of cannabis that is rich in the medicinal cannabinoid, averaging 18 percent CBD, according to Schmitt.
Daily testing of flower samples with an on-site high-performance liquid chromatograph allows him to monitor the plants to optimize CBD levels, while being sure to stay below 0.3 percent THC and within federal regulations.
North Car0lina’s Promising Hemp Industry
Schmitt estimates that 2,500 acres of hemp were planted in North Carolina in 2017, split among open fields, greenhouses and grow rooms. Hemp Inc. grew about 500 acres, with the balance cultivated on independent farms.
Hemp can be far more lucrative than the tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn and other crops typically grown by farmers in the region. But production of hemp in North Carolina this year was negatively impacted by red tape from the federal government. Planting, which should have occurred in May, was delayed until July because farmers couldn’t get the seed they needed.
“The DEA said we could only bring in seed from offshore,” said Schmitt. “When President Trump was campaigning, he discussed creating jobs here in America. So, I found it a bit ironic that I could not purchase seed from farmers in other states, that I had to purchase it from offshore. I’m not interested in creating jobs offshore, I’m trying to create jobs in our country.”
The farmers eventually circumvented that DEA requirement, relying instead on a letter from the North Carolina state attorney general’s office that upheld the legality of purchasing seed from growers participating in other states’ government-sanctioned hemp agriculture programs.
The hemp harvest started in North Carolina a few weeks ago, and is expected to continue into October. The late start meant less acres were planted than Schmitt had anticipated. Yields per acre were also reduced, due to the shorter growing time.
But he believes 2017 was still a valuable growing season, particularly since farmers new to hemp gained valuable knowledge and experience. He expects as many as 10,000 acres will be planted in North Carolina in 2018, and that the state will lead the U.S. in production within two or three years.