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From the ground up: Appalachian Growers digging into hemp industry

Noah Miller, assistant farmer manager, separates hemp buds through a sifter at Appalachian Growers. Jessi Stone photo Noah Miller, assistant farmer manager, separates hemp buds through a sifter at Appalachian Growers. Jessi Stone photo

It may look like marijuana and it may smell like marijuana, but it’s not marijuana. Without the THC component, the green and aromatic plant is simply hemp. It won’t get you high and it’s now legal to grow in 34 states, including North Carolina. 

More than 800 farmers across North Carolina are now growing industrial hemp in some capacity to use for textiles, teas, CBD oils and more since the General Assembly passed the 2014 farm bill. That bill led the way for the hemp pilot program to begin a year later. Even though it’s legal now, there’s still stigma and misperceptions surrounding the industrial hemp market. 

It’s part of the reason Appalachian Growers has been trying to keep a low profile in the last year as they grow their business on leased farmland in Macon County. There’s bound to be curious onlookers who want to visit the farm and see what’s going on, but they try to keep traffic to a minimum out of respect for the neighbors. 

However, owners Lori Lacy and Steve Yuzzi of Waynesville are excited about being on the ground floor of a growing industry as they continue to learn more about the process through trial and error. 

“Steve has always been a business owner — he was raised here. I was a personal trainer for years and when we met we decided to pursue a business venture together,” Lacy said. 

 

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Lori Lacy and Steve Yuzzi are the owners of Appalachian Growers, an industrial hemp farm in Macon County. Jessi Stone photo

 

Yuzzi has started several businesses in the region — a bowling alley, a pizza restaurant and more — but the two couldn’t really decide on what they wanted to do next. After visiting an industrial hemp farm during a trip to Maine, Yuzzi and Lacy finally found something new and exciting they could pursue. 

“It’s been great to come back to Franklin and work with several of my former classmates,” Yuzzi said. “In all of our projects, we try to source work locally and provide economy to the community.”

“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but it all just fell into place,” Lacy said.

Appalachian Growers got licensed through the state, found existing farmland to lease in Macon and broke ground last February on a 4,000-square-foot metal warehouse to prepare for their first growing season. 

Most first-time farmers will just dip their toe in — perhaps plant an acre or two to see how it goes — but Yuzzi and Lacy jumped right into the deep end by planting 10 acres during their first season. Hemp can be a fickle plant depending on the soil and the weather, but when looking around at all the bins stored away in their warehouse two weeks ago, it appears the bold move paid off. 

“Even though there was a steep learning curve, everyone here believes in what they’re doing,” Lacy said. 

The goal was to get the seeds in the ground by June, but planting kept getting postponed because of all the rain, and the seeds had been germinating in the greenhouse since April. The hemp seeds were finally planted and grew until September before being harvested. The harvesting process took about five weeks to complete. 

“I have about nine to 10 people working right now, but we had 20 to 30 during planting and up to 50 during harvest,” she said. “We try our best to hire locally.”

 

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Patrick Roberts from Darnell Farms in Bryson City picks hemp buds off the stems at Appalachian Growers in Macon County. Jessi Stone photo

 

Josh Brandes serves as the farm manager and Noah Miller of Bryson City is the assistant farm manager at Appalachian Growers. Industrial hemp is an industry Miller has wanted to break into for some time, but a few years ago he thought he’d have to leave North Carolina to do it.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I thought I’d have to travel the country to do it, but I never thought it would be happening here in North Carolina.”

Gaining experience at the hemp farm will help him toward his goal of becoming a master grower, something Lacy said will help him in the future be able to get just about any job he wants in the industry. 

“To be a master grower you have to have a lot of knowledge about the industry and different growing techniques. You have to learn about the plant and its different stages of life and all the science behind it,” she said. “He’ll be an invaluable resource.”

As first time farmers, Lacy and Yuzzi also enlisted help from more experienced growers in the region to gain valuable knowledge about the process, including folks from Darnell Farms in Bryson City, JW Mitchell from Mitchell Farms and Nathan Moss. Nate Darnell said it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship — as he’s helped Appalachian Growers with farming techniques, he’s been able to learn more about the emerging hemp industry. 

Once the crop was harvested, the plants had to be hung upside down to dry for five to seven days before being stored in large bins to cure. Then the buds from the plants had to be taken off the stems and run through a trimmer. 

Appalachian Growers plant two different types of hemp seeds — special sauce and sour space candy. Both grow from feminized hemp seeds ordered from a hemp seed company in Oregon genetically designed without THC. Female plants are required to be able to produce hemp for CBD purposes. Male plants present within a crop will pollinate the female plants and produce seeds, which is not what you want to happen because that process can then reduce the cannabinoid production. 

Even though hemp is legal to grow now, operations are still very closely monitored and regulated by the state. Appalachian Growers is licensed by the state of North Carolina and performs regular quality control tests to show the hemp is free of THC, pesticides, mold, yeast and other micro-toxins before being sold to the public. 

While the average batch of marijuana can contain anywhere from 5 to 20 percent THC, the state requires that hemp contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. Yuzzi said their hemp showed only about 0.01 percent THC, so they are extremely proud of the quality of their product coming out of the ground. They hold themselves to high standards and are active members of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association. 

 

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Ed Polley of Clayton, Georgia, stands in awe at the first hemp harvest at Appalachian Growers. Donated photo

 

“We use all organic practices — no pesticides — but we’re not yet organic certified,” Lacy said. “Were in the process of doing all the paperwork now to get certified.” 

The final result is a biomass product that can be shipped to businesses around the country that use it to make CBD oils, teas and more. 

“We only sell to businesses and we have to verify their product,” she said. “We won’t just sell to anyone for personal use or a quick way to make a buck.”

Lacy said she’s never been a marijuana user — far from it. A self-described suburban mom, she said she never imagined owning her own hemp farm. Just like a lot of other people, she probably had misperceptions about cannabis and hemp as well as the people who use it, but now she’s learned about the benefits of hemp and has enjoyed getting to know other experts in the field. 

“I went from a suburban mom to working with an entire new group of people that offer a different perspective and I love it — they are some of the most kind people I know,” she said. “I’ve learned so much about something that was totally out of my wheelhouse. I was such a naysayer of cannabis and here I am now providing jobs for people who have a real passion for it. That’s been amazing to me.”

She’s now growing a product she strongly believes in because she’s seen the benefits CBD can have for a number of ailments, including aches and pains, anxiety, insomnia and more. 

“Many people have transitioned from using marijuana to CBD for anxiety and sleep,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t looking to get high — they’re looking to address those symptoms so CBD is more beneficial for them to use, but it’s not for everyone. You should always consult your physician beforehand if you have specific conditions.”

As Appalachian Growers prepares for its second growing season, Yuzzi and Lacy are also offering any advice and guidance they can to other farms about the ins and outs of growing industrial hemp. Just last week they participated on a panel discussion for area farmers through the extension office. They’ve also offered tours for Western Carolina University students. 

“We can offer advice and consulting services to other farmers trying to break into the industry using our year-long experience,” Lacy said. “We can help them know where to start and things we had to learn the hard way.”

While the market is growing and there is certainly money to be made, Lacy also cautions that hemp is not going to be a panacea for farmers. It’s actually a pretty risky crop to grow because of how it’s classified by the federal government. Only recently did the the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency make CBD with THC below 0.1 percent a Schedule 5 drug, as long as the medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It was the first time any kind of cannabis was removed from the Schedule 1 classification. These classifications make it impossible for farmers to protect their crop with federal crop insurance. 

“Growing hemp is something farmers can add to what they’re already doing — it can clean and renourish the soil but it’s not going to be the savior of crops,” Lacy said. “The market will level out so you have to create something with sustainability.” 

When looking to the future of hemp and cannabis in North Carolina, some growers and businesses are preparing for the day medicinal or even recreational marijuana is made legal, but Lacy said Appalachian Growers didn’t start with any intention to grow marijuana. 

“There’s such a market for hemp and we want to stay true to what we believe in — we want to learn how to be good at what we’re doing and keep high standards and strict guidelines,” she said. 

For more information about Appalachian Growers, follow them on facebook or visit www.appalachiangrowers.com.

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