Chris Flippo opened a stylish, logo-stamped Flippo Farms bag and a pound of bud dropped onto the table.
An aroma of cannabis spread from the corner of the greenhouse.
The pile of sticky, green flower tops looked like the kind of Sensimilia that would draw the attention of a black-jacketed team from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But the potency of this pile of weed wouldn’t even get a head-turn from Cheech and Chong.
“It’s cannabis. There’s no denying that,” said Flippo, who is one of the handful of growers certified by the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission to grow hemp.
He produces laboratory paperwork indicating that the buds from his 2018 crop have a THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, level of 0.22 percent by weight.
“This was such a big grow that we had it tested four times,” Flippo said.
“These are all hemp strains that have had the THC levels bred to be low,” Flippo said. “It looks just like weed, but it’s not.”
The THC level in marijuana can be up to about 20 percent, but state law requires that hemp produced for industrial purposes have a level less than 0.3 percent.
The hemp industry got a real boost in December with the passage of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, the farm bill President Donald Trump recently signed into law, which made the crop legal. Hemp had been illegal since 1937.
“This is Cherry Wine CBD hemp and at 14.5 percent (cannabidiol), so in terms of money, a farmer would make on average, big scale, we’re talking 1,000 pounds or more, would make 60 bucks a pound if it looks like this. Some people would pay $80 or $100.”
This hemp is for medicinal purposes.
“I sell it to a lot of shops,” Flippo said. “We have got some big oil buyers out west that buy it. They make the oil. This is a standard smoke shop pound of smokable flower. If a guy wanted to buy a lot of them, he’d be able to get that for $350 or $400.”
Flippo hopes to be a major supplier of hemp plants for area farmers in the coming year.
“We’re literally about to start growing here in a couple of weeks. We’re going to fill it up,” Flippo said.
Flippo believes that 2019 will be a big year for hemp in Wilson County.
“It has got the opportunity to be big,” Flippo said.
Bill Harrell is another certified hemp grower in Wilson County.
Harrell grew a small plot of CBD hemp but had to harvest early due to Hurricane Florence.
“If Florence had come in with the crop in the field, it most likely would have blown down, and they do not want hemp that is dirty,” Harrell said. “It would have been not marketable.
We did what we had to do and as of yet, we have not been able to sell the crop.”
Harrell’s hemp developed a mold problem due to high humidity during and after the hurricane.
Harrell said hemp is something he is going to have to learn to grow.
“It is a trial and error process at present,” Harrell said.
Growers have limited options because a very limited amount of fungicides and no herbicides can be used on CBD hemp.
Because Harrell has historically been a tobacco farmer, using tobacco equipment makes the process a little more viable.
“Drying a large volume of the hemp would be hard to do without your bulk curing barns,” Harrell said. “It would take a lot of sheltered open space to dry this product if you were just drying it out in the open barn to get any volume.”
Harrell advises growers to start small when they are going into hemp.
“We will more than likely lose money on our hemp from this year, so it’s my advice to anybody planning on hemp is don’t invest any more than you can spend and lose,” Harrell said. “It’s not a sure thing.”
“Once we learn to grow the crop, I think the future is that it will be an alternative for growers to have an alternative crop that they can get a little more income out of,” Harrell said. “I do not think that it is the cure-all.”
Harrell said if the revenue per acre is what farmers project right now, everybody would be growing it and it would be cheap.
“I just think it is going to be a niche market and people are going to be able to make some money out of it, but I don’t think it’s going to be the golden cow that tobacco was at one time,” Harrell said. “I do not think that it will save North Carolina as a whole the way that tobacco has served North Carolina for the last 100 years.”
When the farm bill passed, more farmers looked at the possibility of getting into hemp.
“It is good that it is a legal crop,” Harrell said. “We secured the license to grow it and what all earlier this spring, but it gives you just a little bit better feeling that everything is legal and above-board. The process of growing and producing this crop is just such an unknown that it’s hard right now. I just think it’s something that the farmers are going to have to learn to grow the crop and it’s going to take some time. We have been growing tobacco since the colonists came across and we still learn things about it every year, so we have got a long way to go with the hemp.”
Ronald Bryant Lancaster, another certified hemp grower at Lancaster Farms in Stantonsburg, grew three acres of hemp for CBD in 2018.
“So far, it hasn’t turned out too well,” Bryant said.
Lancaster said the crop was tainted when pesticides drifted from a nearby cotton field.
“When you don’t have anybody to help you with the knowledge, it takes a little time,” Lancaster said. “We learned each year we do it. We’re trying it.
We harvested a little early because of the hurricane and that hurt us a little.”
Todd Glover, who farms on the Nash-Wilson county line, said he became interested in hemp because of the potential to earn money from an added crop in his rotation.
Glover got his certification from the hemp commission on on Jan. 7.
“We are just looking at bringing some income to the farm with the things that are going on with the low prices,”Glover said. “We felt like we would kind of look at the hemp and try to see about growing it and bringing some income back to the farm. That’s the main objective, income for the farm.”
Glover said he will be raising hemp for the CBD oil.
“Everybody tells you what the potential is, but you’ve got to get it to your pocket,” Glover said. “I think the thing is moving really quickly. Everybody’s looking. We hear a lot of talk about the hemp.”
Glover said tobacco is still the cash cow for eastern North Carolina, but trade wars could affect farmers’ bottom line.
“China buys 60 to 70 percent of all of the tobacco and with them not buying from the United States, you take 60 to 70 percent of the tobacco out of eastern North Carolina, you are going to hurt a lot of farms and a lot of farm families,” Glover said.
“I think they are all looking somewhere else to grow to bring that cash back to the family farm, and that’s what we’re looking at. We’re not looking at a lot of acreage. We are just looking at a couple of acres to try. From what I have learned from the people who have grown it, it takes you a couple of years to kind of figure it out. Everybody is trying to figure what land grows the best, which way to grow it or how to grow it. We have got to go through that learning curve.”