NEW CARLISLE, Ohio — The founders of The Ohio Hemp Co. weren’t always planning on growing hemp. In 2018, Justin Helt and TJ Richardson were talking about starting a craft brewery, after they returned to Ohio after both studying at universities in Kentucky.
But with Helt’s family background — he comes from a long line of farmers, and his grandfather, Jim Helt, is in the Ohio Ag Council’s hall of fame and the state fair hall of fame — they thought they might do better in a support role, providing the crops that breweries need to make their craft beer. So, they started looking into hops.
As they studied hops, they learned that it would take several years of growing the crop to get a return on investment. Hop plants take several years to mature. And several of the conferences they attended also talked about hemp, a close genetic relative to hops. The crop sounded interesting.
Then, in 2019, Ohio legalized hemp production and started putting together a state program so farmers could apply to grow it for 2020.
Richardson and Helt made a quick pivot from hops to hemp. Since then, they’ve thrown themselves growing hemp, at the Helt’s family farm, in New Carlisle, Ohio. As the industry develops, they are doing their best to lead research and help other farmers learn more about the crop.
“We have constantly tried to try everything, in multiple different ways,” Helt said.
In addition to Helt and Richardson, The Ohio Hemp Co.has two other partners: Randall Helt, Justin’s father, and Todd Henderson, who owns Ohio Nursery Exchange. The nursery is just a few minutes away from The Ohio Hemp Co.’s farm.
They grow hemp in hoophouses at the nursery, in addition to growing hemp outdoors at the farm. This year, between the two locations, they have about 7 acres of hemp.
Henderson was interested in hemp when he heard about its legalization in Ohio. But, at that point, he was already transitioning from mainly growing sod for his company, Henderson Turf, to also running the nursery he had just purchased. He was too busy to experiment with hemp, too.
Richardson and Helt didn’t know that. But they were interested in growing hemp indoors or in hoophouses. They heard about the nursery, and its new owner. So, they reached out. Henderson agreed to work with them.
“The one thing we challenge each other all the time is to do it right the first time,” Richardson said.
That doesn’t always happen. But guidance from Henderson and Randall Helt, as more experienced farmers, and support from other farmers and researchers in the area has helped. Their experience complements Richardson’s and Helt’s backgrounds in business and technology.
“As long as Ohio has people like Todd Henderson willing to get involved, I think hemp’s going to be OK, as the state grows and matures,” Richardson said.
With hemp being a newer crop for Ohio, the first year was a big learning curve, even after all of the time spent researching and talking to other farmers.
“I think, just in general, the first year went great,” Richardson said. “One of the big fears that we had, and one of the big scares of getting involved in this is not making it to a harvest.”
For the most part, their crop did make it to harvest. That doesn’t mean the year was without challenges, including things like pests and diseases, and keeping THC levels low enough to comply with legal requirements, while also having high enough concentrations of CBD and other metabolites.
“One of the biggest lessons for last year, probably, was that your preventatives are extremely, extremely important, because once you actually see the problem out there, it’s a big problem,” Helt said.
That’s one of the things they emphasize when they consult with other farmers. The consulting side of their business developed naturally. Last year, they got multiple calls from other hemp farmers, asking for advice about a particular problem, or suggestions on how to do something. Now, they work with about 15 farmers in their region.
Consulting is one of three main revenue streams for the company. The other two are research and development, and renting or selling products related to growing hemp — things like drip irrigation systems and equipment.
Those other forms of revenue give them more freedom when it comes to the actual hemp growing and marketing.
They are still selling some of the hemp from last year to processors and wholesalers. One of the goals is to sell mainly to processors in Ohio, instead of sending product to other states. That was tricky last year. In 2020, Helt entered a public information request for a list of all the hemp processors in Ohio. Five came back.
But this year, an updated list showed 52 more processors in the state. Some aren’t up and running yet, but are hoping to be by the time harvest season comes around this fall.
Some of the research projects The Ohio Hemp Co. has been part of so far include a variety trial with Front Range Biosciences, a company based in Colorado, and a project with Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, on manure as a hemp fertilizer.
Right now, the company is mainly focused on metabolite hemp, which is hemp grown for things like CBD. Down the road, however, team members want to get involved with fiber and grain hemp as well.
The main challenge for fiber and grain hemp is the lack of infrastructure. Farmers can grow it, but there’s currently nowhere to take it for processing.
Richardson and Helt want to help build that infrastructure. They are planning to pitch their company at Launch Dayton Startup Week, in September, and compete for a $5,000 award, which they would spend on applying for a processing license.
To them, hemp is an exciting new crop for farmers. Many of the farmers they consult with now are beginning farmers.
“We are just scratching the surface on this,” Henderson said. “I think it’s the next generation of farmer that’s going to embrace this.”
But if the infrastructure for fiber and grain hemp continues to develop, they are also hoping to help more conventional farmers get into hemp and include it as another crop in their rotation.
“I think it’s just a really exciting industry to be a part of. There’s always new things coming out, every single day,” Helt said.
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