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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar talks hemp production and saving the farm industry of NC

North Carolina has been inching toward industrial hemp production for a few years now.

AGRICULTURE IN NC: Legacy Farms showcased an exhibit about NC hemp in 2016. Courtesy photo

“I don’t think a new crop has been introduced in North Carolina in 40 years.,” Jock commented during our Valentine’s Day dinner. We were discussing the hemp decorticator that had been unloaded at Full Belly Project earlier in the day.

AGRICULTURE IN NC: Legacy Farms showcased an exhibit about NC hemp in 2016. Courtesy photo

AGRICULTURE IN NC: Legacy Farms showcased an exhibit about NC hemp in 2016. Courtesy photo

“I’m not trying to be rude, sweetheart, but it has to be longer than that,” I noted. “I mean, think about it: soy, peanuts, rice—we haven’t grown rice in a meaningful way in North Carolina since the early part of the 20th century. Cotton, corn…”

“When was soy introduced?” Jock posited.

Yes, believe it or not, this is foreplay in our household on Valentine’s.

For the curious, according to the Soyfoods Center:

“In 1856 soybeans were in North Carolina. On May 31, 1856, a packet of them (called ‘Japan peas’) was sent by John J. Wyche from Henderson, Vance Co., North Carolina to the Agricultural Division of the patent office. It seems very likely Wyche also cultivated some of his soybeans, but we cannot be sure.”

Apparently, North Carolina was the first state to produce soy commercially and to crush domestically produced soy for oil. In addition, of great interest to Jock Brandis, founder of Full Belly Project, and agricultural equipment innovator extraordinaire, North Carolina had the first farm implements for mechanical soy harvesting. The Soyfoods Center notes though soy was here in the 1860s, production really took off in the early 1900s.

The weather has been so unseasonably warm and beautiful lately, so I have been outside a lot. Though a considerable amount of time has been dedicated to covering and uncovering the garden at night—and in the mornings trying to keep the plants alive through night-time freezes—daytime temperatures have been just lovely. Consequently, on the day Jock unloaded the decorticator at Full Belly, I spent the day filling seed pots and getting seeds started.

“I think I got a little over 100 seed pots planted today,” I commented to Jock while giving a baleful eye at an abandoned cabbage seedling that was riding around in the cup holder of his pick-up truck. “So tell me about this decorticator thing? Why do you have it?” I queried.

Jock launched into a lengthy explanation of hemp fiber and the percentage of plant that was usable vs. unusable, and cost of shipping raw product versus processed product. After a few minutes I interrupted.

“So, what I think I am hearing you say is you are planning to take the thing apart, figure out how it works and rebuild a smaller unit farmers can use at the farm, rather than have to take their crop to a central processing facility. Is that it, essentially?”

“Yes!” Jock nodded. “You know Full Belly supports farmers in North Carolina, not just internationally, so I think this thing will be portable and will go to hemp farmers in their fields.”

North Carolina has been inching toward industrial hemp production for a few years now. The NC Industrial Hemp Commission permits and licenses farmers to grow industrial hemp. WRAL in Raleigh reported in 2018, more than 4,300 acres of hemp were planted in North Carolina. Considering the challenges farmers are facing in our changing climate and economy, that sounds very promising.

The Raleigh News & Observer noted in a 2017 piece, exploring the threats to NC agriculture: Apparently, there were 2,700 fewer farms than in 2007 and 100,000 less than in the 1960s. It isn’t really a great surprise to anyone with eyes to see, is it? I mean, drive around the area in a car and look around at the acres that used to be farmed; they’re now real estate developments.

The cost and profit of farming are not working out on the balance sheet for many new generations. We were known as the tobacco state for many years, due to the vast amounts of tobacco grown and processed here by the giants of R.J. Reynolds, American Tobacco Company (the Duke family). According to “NC in the Global Economy” by the Duke Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, 1992 saw 80,762 people employed in 2,144 places. Back then, NC was the largest tobacco employer nationally. We have lost close to half of the jobs since. Hemp has been gaining interest in North Carolina for a few years in part because it grows really well in the same condition tobacco needs. So, in a declining market for tobacco, a crop claiming it can produce over 25,000 potential products has people listening.

The explosion of interest in CBD oil (cannabidiol) in the last few years—touted it seems as a miracle cure for everything from anxiety to Parkinson’s disease—has increased many people’s interest in hemp farming, both farmers’ and the public’s interest alike. Hemp seeds have long been desirable as food substance because of their protein and essential fatty-acid content, vitamin E and trace mineral content. An irradiated variety (to prevent planting) has been sold in the bulk food bins and health food co-ops for decades.

Hemp has potential for the textile and rope industry, too. Long, durable, strong fibers are highly desirable. That is the part that has Jock excited right now. In agriculture real money is made in processing and trading rather than growing crops. The “value added” piece: when for example peanuts go from in the shell to shelled, they increase in value. Again, oil is more valuable once it has been pressed from the nut. Jock tries to focus his work on putting more of these options in the hands of small farmers around the world. He argues, if they are out working hard in the field, they should be getting a bigger piece of the pie than someone who doesn’t get their hands dirty.

Jock grew up on a small market farm in Northern British Columbia, and since the beginning of Full Belly Project, he has been adamant his inventions and innovations can be just as useful in North Carolina as in Mali, Haiti, Cambodia or the Philippines. At the core of his design philosophy, he makes a prototype of a machine. Once it works, he begins to remove half the parts to make it simpler, more compact and easily replicable by others.

North Carolina is teetering on the brink and is in a perfect position to become a major grower and exporter of hemp and hemp products. We have growing conditions the plants love, a history of agriculture and an infrastructure support system from NC State and the Cooperative Extension Service for farmers across the state. We have arable farm land and farmers looking for a crop, and we have access to good roads, ports and freight services for exporting the product to market. Oddly enough, it might be this plant that saves our legacy of farming in the Old North State—and paves our economic future.

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