North Carolina

A nursery in RTP clones hemp plants that thrive on NC land where tobacco once grew

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In a pair of pleasantly warm greenhouses tucked between the sprawling campuses of IT and pharmaceutical companies in Research Triangle Park, Matt Spitzer and Chase Werner are cloning what may be North Carolina’s next big crop.

Spitzer and Werner, childhood friends who grew up in Raleigh, abandoned a struggling organic hydroponic vegetable-growing operation a couple of years ago to launch Triangle Hemp, one of the first operations in the state devoted completely — and legally — to the production of hemp, the non-psychoactive relative of marijuana.

They decided to begin producing the plants the way farmers have chosen commercial crops for centuries. When they realized their vegetables were not sustainable because they couldn’t price-compete with large producers in California, they considered what else would thrive under local growing conditions, would be met with strong demand and would generate a reliable profit. Tomatoes for transplant? Micro greens? Ornamentals?

Spitzer and Werner, business and horticulture graduates of N.C. State University, arrived at this crossroads a couple of years after Congress decided to allow states to regulate hemp and its active ingredient, cannabidiol, or CBD. In 2016, North Carolina legislators approved a pilot program with rules and licensing procedures allowing — for now — farmers to grow hemp and processors to extract oil from the flowers. More than 600 growers have enrolled.

Hemp seedlings from Triangle Hemp are loaded onto a farmer’s truck on May 21, 2018. Hemp is the only commodity in North Carolina that requires a license to grow, and only farmers with a track record of growing crops are eligible under the stateÕs Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. Juli Leonard

CBD has so far been federally approved for use in medication to prevent seizures, but it’s touted as a way to reduce chronic pain, relieve anxiety and even help clear up acne.

“It just seemed like hemp had the most potential,” said Spitzer. “We did a lot of research. It was clear this was not snake oil.”

Werner said he’s heard from people who have used CBD, or their aunt or cousin used it, “And it improved the quality of their life.”

Spitzer and Werner spent more than a year testing plants to find a hardy variety they could reliably clone and that wouldn’t produce more than the legal threshold of .3 percent THC, or tetrahydocannbinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

They found in it November 2017, and the next year, sold cuttings to 70 farmers who transplanted them onto more than 200 acres in North Carolina and other states. This year’s crop, which sold out in the spring, was about double that.

Cuttings from Triangle Hemp’s plants are pampered with water, sunlight and nutrients until they develop healthy root systems and coan be sold as seedlings to farmers across the state and as far away as Kentucky. Juli Leonard

Like everything else that springs from the earth, hemp is susceptible to pests, diseases and consumer tastes. It remains to be seen how big the market is for CBD, and whether N.C. lawmakers will approve full-scale hemp production after the pilot program ends.

Agriculture is risky like that.

But for now, Spitzer said, “We feel very fulfilled. We love growing plants. If we can grow plants that help people, I don’t know how it can get any better than that.”

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.