In the Broadway community just east of Sanford, flat, sandy fields of tobacco, corn, and soybeans stretch down both sides of U.S. Highway 421. Ryan Patterson grew up farming here
In the Broadway community just east of Sanford, flat, sandy fields of tobacco, corn, and soybeans stretch down both sides of U.S. Highway 421. Ryan Patterson grew up farming here with his dad, on the same land where his grandparents and great-grandparents farmed their way through the Depression. He now tends 1,000 acres along the Harnett County line.
“I reckon it’s just in my blood,” Ryan says. “And I’ve got a 16-year-old son who loves it as much as I do.” His daughters, ages 15 and 22, help out in the greenhouse, too.
Farming has always been the answer for the Patterson family, so when Ryan’s dad, Phil, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016, Ryan looked to the fields. The medicines that Phil tried either made him sick or made his tremors worse. Ryan knew there must be something better.
After church one Sunday, the family drove two hours to Wilmington to check out some hemp to grow. Having heard that the plant could lessen the effects of the disease and help slow the progression, Ryan secured one of the first hemp-growing licenses in North Carolina. By 2017, he had about 200 organic plants in his greenhouse.
One day, Phil was helping hand-trim hemp flowers. He told Ryan that he wasn’t sure he could finish the job because of his tremors, but, ever the stubborn farmer, Phil persisted. Hemp flowers are sticky. As the Pattersons trimmed, resin from the flowers coated their skin. After about 15 minutes, Phil held out his hands to Ryan. They were steady. Phil has taken hemp products ever since.
“It’s not a cure,” Ryan says, “but it helps with the symptoms.”
Ryan is now co-owner of Broadway Hemp Company, a state-of-the-art facility near the farm, where they produce oils, capsules, topicals, and gummies. The products are made in ozonated labs by people wearing lab coats, and the equipment mirrors machines found in some of the nation’s top pharmaceutical companies.
Their unique Hemp Reserve capsule combines organically grown hemp flowers with muscadine grape-seed powder, bringing together the antioxidant properties of muscadines with the cannabidiol from hemp.
“Hemp has a lot of potential,” Ryan says. “We just have to get the right people behind it.”
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Hemp — Cannabis sativa — is an annual herb native to Asia with a long, complicated history. For millennia, humans have cultivated hemp for its fiber to make rope, clothing, and paper. Hemp cultivation was encouraged worldwide through the 18th century, including in colonial North Carolina. Gov. William Tryon spoke about the importance of the crop before the general assembly in the 1760s, and, in 1766, the assembly passed an act that established warehouses in Halifax and Campbellton (precursor to Fayetteville) for the inspection of hemp and flax for fiber exports. Cannabis sativa has also been used throughout history for medicinal and nutritional purposes.
Hemp has more than 100 cannabinoids, or biologically active chemical compounds. One of those is cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD. The human body contains its own endocannabinoid system, which produces endocannabinoids to regulate daily functions like sleep, appetite, pain, and immune system response. But if something knocks the body out of balance — physically, like an illness or injury, or mentally, like depression or anxiety — the endocannabinoid system struggles to maintain regulation. A growing amount of research suggests that the CBD found in hemp can help.
However, Cannabis sativa has another cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. If enough THC is present in a plant, it produces a psychotropic high when ingested. Cannabis sativa plants with a certain percentage of THC are known as marijuana.
In 1937, the U.S. government restricted Cannabis sativa. For decades, hemp was outlawed because of marijuana’s effects. But as research mounted for hemp’s potential as an alternative fiber source and medicinal supplement, the government began to reconsider its ban.
The federal Agricultural Act of 2014 stated that research institutions and state departments of agriculture may grow industrial hemp — that is, Cannabis sativa with 0.3 percent THC or less — as part of an agricultural pilot program. The 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the list of scheduled narcotics.
Industrial hemp can be grown in two ways: Floral hemp requires more space between plants, which are designed to produce flowers and seeds for CBD products. Fiber hemp is planted more densely, like a row crop, and the entire plant is harvested for its fibrous material.
In 2017, North Carolina’s Industrial Hemp Commission adopted rules allowing farmers to apply for hemp-growing licenses. Many farmers, looking to diversify, jumped at the chance. They planted it, harvested it, and sold it. And they did well — so well that, in 2019, they flooded the fledgling market. Dried hemp still sits in barns and warehouses across the state, waiting for buyers.
Some farmers and manufacturers, like Patterson Farms and Broadway Hemp, vertically integrated, becoming their own market by taking the plant from the field to the shelf. But due to a lack of FDA regulation, those growers are unable to label their products as nutritional supplements or make any claims about health benefits on their packages or in their marketing. They can’t tell you how much to take or what ailment to take it for. Imagine trying to sell a potato masher without being able to say “potato” or “mash.” It’s difficult.
But farmers like the Pattersons are determined. And those here in North Carolina know where to turn for research and support.
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North Carolina State University, one of the biggest allies of farmers, particularly those here in the Old North State, is researching hemp. David Suchoff is the alternative crops extension specialist. He searches for new crops that farmers can grow on a large scale. He’s cautiously optimistic about hemp. “Hemp is not a panacea,” Suchoff says. “We have to be more realistic about what it can and can’t do.”
One plus for hemp grown for CBD, or floral hemp, is that the crop translates well to tobacco farmers. The plants per acre, production requirements, field maintenance, harvesting, and drying techniques match existing tobacco infrastructure. “Our tobacco farmers are desperate to find other crops and other ways to make a profit,” Suchoff says. Hemp has the potential to help tobacco farmers diversify, but it’s not a one-for-one replacement. “Early on, people said it’s going to be the crop to replace tobacco, and it’s not. People don’t realize how important tobacco was and is for our state. Go to Duke University’s campus; that’s tobacco. It has such historical importance.”
A large part of Suchoff ’s research involves hemp grown for fiber. He and his team conduct trials to see which varieties have the best genetics. They collaborate with NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles to evaluate how hemp fiber fits into the fabric industry. While tobacco’s glory days might be behind us, the North Carolina textile industry could be warming up for its next act.
“It’s almost like a no-brainer,” Suchoff says. “If fiber hemp is going to work, it should work in North Carolina.”
• • •
Guy Carpenter’s textile career took him all over the world. In Europe and China, he learned about using hemp to create a more durable fabric. These days, Carpenter calls Wilmington home. His company, Bear Fiber, specializes in sustainable fabrics made with hemp fibers.
By itself, hemp can be heavy and stiff, but new techniques have vastly improved hemp fabric texture. Now, when blended with cotton, it creates a fabric suitable for making into clothing. Bear Fiber uses processes that combine cotton with hemp to produce stronger, longer-lasting garments that are biodegradable. Domestically grown hemp could become a sustainable alternative to imported polyester in 50/50 cotton blends.
Tobacco’s glory days might be behind us, but our textile industry could be warming up for its next act. “If fiber hemp is going to work, it should work in North Carolina.”
“Cotton is hemp’s BFF,” Carpenter says. “If every cotton processor could also process hemp, then farmers would have the opportunity to grow and sell two crops.” The dream, he says, is a decorticator for hemp processing next to every cotton gin.
The win-win story of a cotton-hemp combo could go a long way with environmentally conscious consumers, who don’t just want a better product, he says. “They want something that shows their commitment to sustainability.”
With the state’s rich textile history and research institutions, North Carolina is well positioned to lead the way in sustainable fabrics. “We are trying to establish a farm, fiber, fabric, fashion value chain,” Carpenter says. “Nowhere else in the world are there so many assets and opportunities to collaborate and do research than here in North Carolina.”
• • •
On a valley farm in the Cowee community, rows of mature hemp plants flutter as a breeze blows up from the south. In this far western corner of the state, where the Great Smoky Mountains form high, craggy peaks and rivers flow into low, shady valleys, it’s difficult to fathom that you’re only half a day’s drive from the flat, sandy stretches of eastern North Carolina communities like Broadway.
Noah Miller is the farm manager for Appalachian Growers, which has been farming hemp since spring 2018. Unlike the Patterson family, Miller is part of a recently formed team whose members have varied backgrounds. He grew up working on large-acre farms in southern Michigan and has experience with indoor and outdoor cannabis cultivation. That serves him well as he walks through rows of organic hemp plants, inspecting the leaves for blight spots or missing edges munched by deer or caterpillars.
Lori Lacy, who co-owns Appalachian Growers with her partner, Steve Yuzzi, has a background in personal training. Client after client came to her with stories about using CBD products to help with sleep, pain, inflammation, anxiety. The more research she did, the more intrigued she became. She and Yuzzi traveled to Maine to work on a hemp farm. They talked to people at NC State. They studied plots of land to see where they might break ground. They settled on an overgrown farm in Cowee, just north of Yuzzi’s hometown of Franklin, on land that hadn’t been cultivated in 30 years.
Today, that valley plot has more than 3,000 hemp plants in well-maintained fields. In mid-August, Miller and crew hand-harvest mature hemp flowers and hang them to dry in a 4,000-square-foot climate-controlled building. The best flowers are placed in little glass jars and sold for smoking CBD. All other parts of the plant are pressed into oil that goes into wellness tinctures, lotions, and ointments.
Lacy and Yuzzi spend weekends at festivals and fairs in small towns across North Carolina and neighboring states, introducing people to their products. They tell the story of their farm. In turn, people tell them how Appalachian Growers’ products have helped them. And even though Appalachian Growers can’t advertise those benefits, Lacy and Yuzzi say that it’s nice to hear about them.
As North Carolina changes and its population increases, the state’s agriculture industry is changing, too. Multigenerational farmers continue to sow the same land as their grandparents, but they experiment with different crops. Newcomers, intent on learning the basics of this ancient practice, purchase unfamiliar plots and bring their own ideas of what a farm can be.
Hemp might not be the magic bullet for all of these farmers, experienced and novice. It might not replace a once-thriving tobacco industry or fire up abandoned textile mills. But a lot of people believe that it has potential. Add that hope to North Carolina’s agricultural experience, textile heritage, world-class research, and entrepreneurial spirit, and hemp might just have a long, successful future.