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Area Farmers Learn About Hemp Growing and Production During Special Meeting in Ashe County

Farmers gathered at Family Central in Jefferson to learn more about hemp production.

By Nathan Ham

It was a standing-room-only crowd at Family Central in Jefferson as local farmers took part in a hemp production and marketing meeting organized by the North Carolina State Extension that specializes in agricultural and horticultural science in the state.

The speakers on Wednesday included researchers from NC State University, experienced growers, hemp processing companies and the NC Industrial Hemp Association.

Margaret Bloomquist and Leonora Stefanile, researchers with the NC State New Crops & Organics Program, spoke at length about the information that they have compiled so far from growing and testing hemp at their research farm located in Mills River.

“We have been doing research with hemp since the beginning of the pilot program at NC State and we have collaborated with NC A&T and other research institutes across the state,” Bloomquist said. “Hemp is bringing in a lot of enthusiasm as well as a lot of research opportunities and economic dollars.”

Some of their research presented included testing how hemp grows with certain types of mulch, plant spacing and the success of different varieties of the plant in this climate.

“We’ve gotten results on varieties, spacing and fertilities and what work we’re doing now we hope we can help the growers,” said Bloomquist.

Dwayne Tate, an agronomist for this region with the NC Department of Agriculture, shared some info based on how hemp grows in various soils.

“The plant seems to be very adaptable to soil conditions. The challenge is that it’s a photoperiod responsive plant, meaning it responds to day length. If the day length is extending, it is in a vegetative state, meaning there’s biomass growth. The plant is in a reproductive state when it is past the (summer) solstice when days begin to get shorter,” Tate said.

Tate added that the pilot program at NC State has allowed for some growers to get ahead of the curve, however a lot of researchers and growers are still trying to get caught up on what information and research is readily available.

High Country Herbs founder Kristopher Gupton, who currently has a hemp farm in Caldwell County, talked about how he got started with the hemp growing process.

Gupton joined the military and served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Now he is attending Appalachian State University and decided to do a study on hemp processing for his final senior project as a biology major.

“My thesis is to identify which of these varieties that people want to buy here in North Carolina and what we can grow here,” Gupton said.

Right now he has been growing seven different varieties of the hemp plant and wants to be able to find the best strand of the plant that can be grown in this climate and cross reference that with what is the most popular.

“I’m a small farmer, I don’t have hundreds of acres. We have a very humid climate here so moisture concerns me with the potential for mold, mildew and rot,” said Gupton.

Unfortunately for him this growing season, with the wettest year on record in most places in Western North Carolina, Gupton lost most of his crops. He said he was able to get a little bit of the money back from a hurricane relief reseed loan. Gupton estimated his crop loss at roughly $60,000.

Blake Butler, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, talked about how popular the crop has become and how North Carolina has the chance to be recognized as one of the biggest hemp producing states in the country.

The association is a 501 (c) 6 trade organization that represents growers, processors and other businesses in the hemp industry.

“We have 600 licensed growers in three years and 62 new growers last month. It’s in our DNA how to grow this crop. It really is. It’s very similar to tobacco. You co-op together, the processor harvests the crop and hands it off,” Butler said. “We’re trying to spread the word that this is a professional business and before you get into an opportunity like this, you need to have a plan like with anything else. Most importantly, don’t plant without having a buyer in mind.”

Butler said that the opportunity for small towns to get back to being key agricultural centers is one of the things that the NC Industrial Hemp Association really wants to see happen.

“The most important thing we want is to make sure everyone is successful with this opportunity. In my opinion, this hemp opportunity will show signs that it is working when we see the smallest towns across the state come back to life,” said Butler. “Towns that have needed a new agricultural community, finding those growers that can take land that has not been utilized for so many years and plant a new seed.”

Be sure to check out the High Country Magazine in the spring for a more detailed look at the research and the growing popularity of hemp production in the area.

Photos by Nathan Ham

Margaret Bloomquist, NC State University New Crops & Organics Program.
Dwayne Tate, agronomist with the NC Department of Agriculture.
Kristopher Gupton, High Country Herbs
Blake Butler, NC Industrial Hemp Association.