By Casey Mann, Chatham News + Record Staff
Chatham N+R editor’s note: Four years after North Carolina legalized the production and sale of industrial hemp, actions by legislators in the N.C. House Agriculture Committee may strike a blow to one of the state’s fastest-growing industries. The uncertainty has local hemp farmers, and others in the industry, concerned. Here’s one local farm’s story.
Just south of the Chatham County line, at Gary Thomas Farms, you just might see a new plant cropping up.
Since 1973, Gary Thomas Sr. has been building his family farm’s business to 2,500 acres. In the beginning, the farm’s cash crop was tobacco, but over the years the farm — which is still managed by Gary and his children — has added asparagus, greenhouse tomatoes, strawberries, onions, squash, sweet potatoes and more.
Earlier year, they started growing something new — hemp.
According to Luke Thomas, Gary’s son, the family decided to convert a greenhouse to hemp after a disappointing year for tomatoes. The family had always sold its produce at a stand on the farm and at other locations in the area, but also sought contracts with retailers to boost revenue. The last contract with a major grocery store dropped the store’s offering price to $1.25 per pound at a time when the cost for the Thomases to produce their greenhouse tomatoes, with labor and fuel, was about $2 per pound.
“They knew you had to get rid of it,” Luke Thomas said.
After the disappointing season, they filled one of their greenhouses with industrial hemp clones.
Finding little help on how to grow and cultivate the plant, the Thomases connected with Aaron Puryear and Patrick McClanahan Jr., co-owners of Oak City Hemp in Pittsboro. The pair were raised on North Carolina farms but moved to Colorado years ago to learn how to grow hemp with an eye toward helping struggling farmers in their home state.
“Everyone here has the same experience,” Puryear said. “Everyone has been growing for just a few years. We went to Colorado to learn how to do it from people who have been doing it for years.”
Today, the two work with a number of hemp growers in the state. They say their assets are not only the knowledge and skills they gained in Colorado, but an understanding of North Carolina’s soil types and weather conditions.
“And we understand North Carolina farm culture,” Puryear said, in his native North Carolina drawl. “We work as people, not as consultants. We didn’t charge when [Gary Thomas Farms] came to us. We just want to sell what he grows instead of just exploiting the farmers.”
Over the past year, the Thomases have invested more than $250,000 in hemp farming, according to Luke Thomas, including $35,000 in grow lights, $85,000 in greenhouses and more than $10,000 in fans in one greenhouse alone.
That investment doesn’t include labor costs. Since April, the family and their five or six farmhands work seven days a week cultivating hemp. They have expanded production to seven greenhouses, one of which is about the length of a football field. This year, they are also planting 30 acres of the hemp in their fields. The size of the operation makes Gary Thomas Farms one of the larger hemp farms in the state.
The Thomases are “going all in.” In one greenhouse alone, they have 120 industrial hemp plants which will yield 100 pounds of smokable hemp. And the Thomases are experienced farmers. Since their initial investment of 1,000 industrial hemp clones, they have been able to grow plants and produce their own clones which allows them to expand into additional greenhouses as well as sell the clones to other North Carolina hemp farmers. Up until a couple of years ago, most of the clones in North Carolina were imported from China.
But growing the plant isn’t hardest part, according to Puryear. It’s the harvesting, the drying, and the curing — a process that can make or break a hemp farmer. The Thomas farm uses a drying technique the Oak City Hemp partners devised themselves.
The time investment is likely a fruitful one for Puryear and McClanahan as well. They note that they sell about 250 pounds of industrial hemp flower a month, a product they had previously needed to import from out of state to ensure quality.
“They have the infrastructure, they have the growers, to produce top shelf flower their first harvest,” Puryear said.
They haven’t stopped growing other things, Luke said, “it’s just not as profitable.” This year, the family planted 200 fewer acres of tobacco than last year. Thomas said the price and the amount of tobacco a farmer can sell has been cut back, making it less and less economically viable to grow.
A battle in Raleigh
Before the N.C. House took its July 4 break, the N.C. House Agriculture Committee held several sessions to discuss a ban on industrial hemp flower. The General Assembly’s Friday schedules are typically light, with many members using the day as a travel day to return to their respective districts. This may account for the nine members who were not in attendance for the June 28 meeting.
A ban on industrial hemp flower has been pushed in recent years by the State Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement groups. They collectively argue that it’s extremely difficult to distinguish either by sight, smell or roadside test between industrial hemp flower, which was removed from the schedule of psychoactive drugs by Congress in 2018, and marijuana. Marijuana contains between 25-45 percent THC, a psychoactive ingredient, while industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent.
Members of law enforcement who spoke during the committee meeting in Raleigh noted that the smell of marijuana is often used to prove probable cause to search an individual’s car or residence. Because it’s so difficult to tell the difference between the two, they argue that it’s hampering their ability to conduct searches.
The Senate version of the bill, which passed on June 17, included a ban that would begin in 2020 in order to provide an opportunity for hemp advocates, the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture and law enforcement time to discuss and research ways to test flower on the spot, such as a roadside test. Agriculture Department representatives were on hand for the committee and stated that Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was in support of the Senate version of the bill. They also said that the department was beginning its work on vetting a roadside test.
Industrial hemp advocates and state officials provided the committee with information about the plant, the farmers and the growth of the industry. According to N.C. Dept. of Agriculture, the state ranks among the top five or six producers of industrial hemp in the country. The plant can be used for a variety of products including fiber, construction materials, CBD (Cannabidiol) extract and the flower. A majority of the production is for CBD and flower, since infrastructure for processing hemp for fiber and construction materials are not yet developed in the United States.
The Dept. of Agriculture noted that 85 percent of North Carolina hemp farmers are growing the plant for the flower. According to Brian Bullman, owner and founder of Carolina Hemp Company, farmers growing the plant for CBD extracts can make up to $40 to $60 per pound. On the other hand, farmers growing for flower can make between $400 and $800 a pound, depending on the time of year. Advocates argued that outlawing the cultivation of industrial hemp flower in North Carolina would strike a significant economic blow to farmers who have invested millions across the state, as well as producers and retailers.
Senator Brent Jackson (R-Duplin) spoke in defense of the Senate version of the bill to the committee, noting that up until a couple of months ago, he had not heard from law enforcement on the subject.
“I’m bewildered,” Jackson said during the committee. “When the Dept. of Agriculture brought this legislation — The Farm Act — I thought we were trying to regulate an unregulated industry. It goes against my grain. I despise regulation… But it’s putting regulations and guidelines in place for a new industry to give it support….But to come here at this critical juncture — Where have y’all been for the last four years? Where have you been?”
Jackson said he believed industrial hemp was “a viable product,” noting that it’s a crop that the federal government, through the 2018 Farm Bill — which was approved by Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump, made hemp legal — and the industry “took off.”
Even with Jackson’s appeal, the committee voted 11-6 to ban industrial hemp flower and to classify it as it does marijuana. The bill still has to pass several committees before it comes back to the for N.C. House for a vote. The bill will also have to go through a conference committee as the bill is different from the Senate version.
With the economic stability hemp is offering the Thomas family, they are hopeful the state doesn’t turn its back on the growing industry and the opportunity it is providing family farms like theirs.
“I hope it stays around,” Luke Thomas said. “My sister has kids, I have three youngins’. I hope it brings us up. Tobacco, beans and corn pulled us down. [I hope this crop] helps us pay some bills. We’ve had a rough few years. We need a good year. Otherwise we’ll have to find something else.”
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