Women Leading Way As Hemp Revival Sweeps North Carolina

By Mackensy Lunsford The Citizen-Times (Asheville) Gaston Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Franny Tacy owner and operator of "Franny's Farm", says, "The hemp revolution, if you will, in western North Carolina is being led by female researchers, and female growers and female business owners." 

LEICESTER

It's easy to get swept away in the magic of a hemp farm where dragonflies float and goats bleat on verdant hills. Franny's Farm is a place where practical magic and science meet.

Owned and operated by Franny Tacy and her husband and CEO Jeff Tacy, Franny's is an active hemp farm in Leicester, and one of the grower sites for North Carolina State University's Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program. The program's aim is to shoulder the burden of trial and error for farmers who want to dig into a swiftly growing industry.

Franny Tacy was a pharmaceutical industry executive for a decade, and also holds a forestry degree from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and a master's in education from Tennessee State University.

She's also the first female industrial hemp grower in western North Carolina and, as a woman, part of the fastest-growing farmer demographic in the U.S. The future of hemp, she said, is female.

"The hemp revolution, if you will, in western North Carolina is being led by female researchers, and female growers and female business owners," she said.

Meagan Coneybeer-Roberts, a Ph.D. researcher and part of the Alternative Crops and Organic Research group at N.C. State, and Gwen Casebeer, a master's student at N.C. State, are two of the women leading hemp research in the region.

Their work focuses exclusively on industrial hemp, with field trials taking place on seven regional grower farms: four in Buncombe County and three in Caldwell County, all averaging 1,000 plants per acre, with the largest site a biodynamic grower in Caldwell with 6 acres.

"We take the burden of risk and we take the burden of experimentation, and we allow the growers to take what we find that works," Coneybeer-Roberts said. "Then they can use that to make money and grow hemp successfully."

On the day research clones were planted in Tacy's field, shortly after Mother's Day, shamans came to tap drums and bless the plants. While inviting a shaman to a hemp planting might sound as Asheville as you can get, Coneybeer-Roberts said ritual can easily co-exist with science.

"There are indications that plants respond to music, to sound, to vibration," she said, standing on the edge of the field where volunteers planted buffer plants around her research rows. "It certainly couldn't hurt."

Before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act swept hemp away in prohibition, American farmers long grew the plant for fiber, feed and more, with George Washington one of hemp's more famous cultivators.

"The government even encouraged them to do so," said Dr. Jeanine Davis, adviser to Casebeer and Coneybeer-Roberts. Davis is an associate professor and extension specialist with the Department of Horticultural Science at N.C. State.

It wasn't until the 2014 Farm Bill, under then-president Barack Obama, that growers were allowed to plant pilot industrial hemp plots, and only under the umbrella of universities and state departments of agriculture for research.

Ever since President Donald Trump signed into law the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, hemp containing less than 0.3% THC is now regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, moving it out from under Drug Enforcement Administration regulation, Davis said.

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it is no longer a controlled substance under federal law, allowing for the possibility of crop insurance and opening doors to bank funding, Davis explained. "People should be able to grow more freely."

At the same time, according to an FDA statement, Congress preserved the FDA's authority to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and section 351 of the Public Health Service Act.

"The FDA will now help, and some will say hinder, us decide whether CBD will be regulated as a botanical, a pharmaceutical, or some of both," Davis said. "I'm looking forward to rules and regulations on production so we, as consumers, know we're getting a safe, clean product."

Now, it's a brave new world, and hemp agriculture is booming in the state, with 3,000 permits issued for hemp growers this year, a 900% increase in less than a year.

The national appetite for hemp and hemp-derived products is huge, with Scientific American reporting the U.S. imported more than $67 million worth of hemp seed and fiber products in 2017.

Some of hemp's growth is likely influenced by the booming demand for CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid proponents say is useful for everything from arthritic pain to anxiety in humans and in pets.

The CBD market was worth nearly $200 million in 2017, triple that by the end of last year. Rapid growth is predicted to continue.

That's just one tool in hemp's toolbox, with the plant's uses counting among the tens of thousands, some largely unexplored, and many nowhere near as sexy as CBD. They include everything from fiber to cooking products to a building material called "hempcrete."

One size does not fit all when it comes to the plant, and plants grown for fiber might not be useful for oil. Figuring which plants are best for which use, and how those plants prefer to grow, is no easy task.

That's where the trials come in.

Proponents of hemp agriculture, like Tacy, hope the results could help North Carolina emerge as a leader in the industry. "You have Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes, and hopefully North Carolina hemp," she said.

Decades-long prohibition has left huge gaps in grower knowledge, and programs like N.C. State's and other hemp trials aim to fill in the spaces.

"There are multiple generations that haven't come into contact with hemp as a crop so, for production and harvest information, a lot of the resources I've used personally date back to the 19th century and in other countries," Coneybeer-Roberts said. Working to push the notion of knowledge as power is the nonprofit Women in Hemp.

Co-founded by Tacy, LilyHemp boutique's Susan Cromer, Florida hemp attorney Carrie McKnight and Coeus Research founder Debbie Custer, Women in Hemp has worked to help back hemp research, providing, for one, at least a quarter of the funding for Coneybeer-Roberts' and Casebeers' project.

Tacy, who once started a junior high science club to get microscopes in her school, says she feels the same sort of childlike wonder in throwing her energy behind Women in Hemp.

It's the right mix of magic, science and activism that fuels her work on the farm. "Mixing science and magic is exactly what we were doing in the field this morning," she said in July, the field hemp not yet flowered.

She and a new hire had worked together under the hot summer sun, mixing organic fertilizer and rigorously testing and balancing the pH -- getting the science right first, Tacy said.

Then, the magic: As part of biodynamic principles, they swirled the water clockwise 50 times, then counterclockwise 50 times to create a vortex over which Tacy read poetry.

"We have love written on our barn over our hemp field, and we go into the field with our best intentions," she said. "We're putting science out there, but our intentions are what are helping create a crop tens of thousands of people have access to in our product line."

Tacy grows enough hemp to create a vertically integrated supply chain for Franny's Farm products, sold online and in the company's four Franny's Farmacy dispensaries. Within weeks, the company will offer a public stock option, with franchise options also coming to the table.

Tacy hopes hemp will become North Carolina's new agricultural legacy, and her company is proof there's a strong market for it. "I think right now, we're in the gold rush era, if you will, and we found a nugget with CBD -- no pun intended."

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