ASHEBORO — Harvest time came Thursday on Waylon Saunders’ farm. It was unique in that the crop he grew was banned in the United States 80 years ago.
It was hemp and it was back.
There were no huge harvesters working the fields. Instead, workers were cutting individual plants. Then, wearing rubber gloves, they used shears to trim buds from the stems. The buds were to be processed to remove seeds and essential oils for commercial use.
The plants and leaves look much like marijuana and, indeed, they are related to cannabis sativa. Hemp has made a comeback and that’s being felt in Randolph County and North Carolina’s Tobacco Belt. Asheboro’s own Bob Crumley is a driving force in that comeback.
He traces his interest in hemp to three friends who died of cancer — Bill Boyd, “Poochie” Cox and Vickie Burgess. Crumley began looking for ways to prevent and treat cancer.
That’s when he came across the benefits of hemp.
“It was outlawed in 1937,” he said of the period when marijuana and its cousin hemp were banned. “It bothered me that industrialists put folks out of business. I decided to bring hemp farming back to North Carolina.”
Crumley founded the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association to lobby to change the law in this state. In 2015, the new law passed the N.C. Legislature, authorizing an industrial hemp pilot program.
Incorporating as CF Properties LLC, Crumley initiated plans to build a hemp products manufacturing plant on Dorsett Avenue off Cox Street. It’s scheduled to begin production early in 2018.
In the meantime, he has recruited farmers to grow hemp, including Saunders. Another farm, owned by Shawn and Brooke Dezern, will focus on producing “clone” plants to sell to other farmers.
Crumley calls his production company Founder’s Hemp in honor of America’s founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom raised hemp.
While it was grown during Revolutionary times primarily as a fiber for ropes, today’s hemp has a multitude of uses. Industrial hemp fiber can be processed into such products as twine, paper, construction materials, carpeting and clothing. The seeds and leaves are used to make industrial oils, cosmetics, nutritional supplements and food products.
In fact, the potential seems to be boundless.
“I predict hemp will be bigger than tobacco is now,” Crumley said. “We’re just scratching the surface of what will be. A farmer can grow hemp seed for food and net after expenses more than he can gross with soybeans. It’s great for field rotation.”
Other farmers in North Carolina are growing hemp, Crumley said, both indoors in greenhouses and outdoors in fields. The growing season began late this year, he added, because of bureaucratic red tape.
“We can ship to other states now,” Crumley said. “A potter here wants hemp seed hulls for a glaze. Seeds are being used in hemp ale,” including one produced by Four Saints Brewing Company in Asheboro. “We’re exploring other ways to use hemp.”
Saunders said the CBD oil, or cannabidiol, has been found to have medicinal effects for certain maladies such as seizures and cancer. Founder’s Hemp offers products such as seeds, gummies, honey sticks and sodas, made from or containing CBD. There is also a dietary food supplement.
Founder’s Hemp had some 15 people involved in the farming and production of hemp. Once the manufacturing plant opens, there will be more jobs available.
Saunders was harvesting a test crop of 50 hemp plants. He plans to grow five acres of hemp next year.
After the buds are de-stemmed, they’re dried and vacuum-sealed prior to processing at Crumley’s facility.
Hemp is a 120-day crop when grown outdoors, Saunders said. Grown in a greenhouse, hemp can produce two harvests in a year.
Mitya Sarjapuram, a food scientist, is Founder’s Hemp director of food production, development and quality control. She said the production plant will hire both skilled and unskilled workers.
“What’s important for us is we’re looking for a cohesive team,” she said.
Hiring won’t begin until the facility is near completion early next year.