Triangle Hemp: Betting on cannabis that’s good for us

Greenhouse
Chase Werner and Matt Spitzer want to demystify hemp. Walking through one of their greenhouses last week at Triangle Hemp, a hemp nursery they recently founded in Durham that primarily sells rooted cuttings to farmers interested in getting into the hemp business, I gazed out at the sea of seedlings before me and had two thoughts. First, it was beautiful—row upon row of lively, healthy little plants, neatly potted on tables from one end of the greenhouse to the other, as far as I could see. Second: the smell. That unmistakable scent so many of us associate with illicit things. It’s funny that our previous associations with the cannabis plant so dominate our perception in the experience of smelling it that we probably never even think about the smell objectively. I breathed in, and the smell was actually…nice. Pungent and earthy. How ‘bout that.

Triangle Hemp is Matt and Chase’s second act. Their first venture, Endless Sun Farms, used hydroponic farming practices in these same greenhouses and in another at Raleigh City Farm to grow the highest-quality lettuce, tomatoes, and basil, and sell to Triangle area restaurants and direct to consumers. Their reputation around here is well-established—they’re the “greenhouse guys.” Now they’re taking what they’ve learned growing produce and applying it to hemp.   

And the timing is right, it seems, since you may have noticed that there’s a lot of buzz about hemp lately. Hemp has been reported to ease our anxiety, alleviate pain, stabilize our mood, and contribute to a general sense of calm and well-being. Some say it even helps treat symptoms of PTSD. But, you’re wondering, won’t it also get us a little high? Nope. (More on that later.) Maybe you’ve heard these things, maybe taken part in a conversation about hemp, and weren’t quite sure if you should be speaking in a more hushed voice, and no one around you could quite reassure you that you should or shouldn’t, or even tell you what, exactly, hemp was?

Well, here is what you need to know: Hemp, like marijuana, is a variety of the plant species cannabis sativa L. Hemp typically contains lower levels of THC—the chemical compound, or “cannabinoid,” found in the flower of the hemp plant that gets you high—than marijuana. Besides THC content, though, the two varieties are indistinguishable from one another by appearance alone and would need to be chemically analyzed to tell them apart. The therapeutic properties of hemp come from its high levels of CBD, another cannabinoid found in its flowers, and the one that’s generating all the buzz.

Okay, now you know what hemp is, but you’ve heard that it’s only “sort of legal.” Let’s take a stab at clarification, shall we? In the Agricultural Act of 2014, the federal government made it legal for certain research institutions and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp, but only as part of an approved pilot program. Farmers apply and receive licenses to plant hemp, which must test below a certain threshold for THC content, and which they can then sell to processors for its fiber, seed, or cannabinoids, legally. This means that if you, the consumer, buy hemp or a hemp-derived product (like CBD oil) from a licensed grower (or a distributor who bought from a licensed grower), your hemp is legal. If you bought it from a stranger in a shady back alley deal, probably not. (And also, why did you do that?)

Matt and Chase are licensed hemp farmers themselves, but through Triangle Hemp they also help other farmers, many of whom are looking for new crops to replace dwindling tobacco sales and other less lucrative crops, get into the (potentially) very lucrative hemp growing business. Triangle Hemp sells clones of a particular strain of hemp that tests low for THC and high for CBD, so that novice hemp farmers can feel confident in the legality of their crop (testing below the legal limits of THC) and desirability of their product (hemp that will produce flowers high in therapeutic CBD). Matt and Chase also serve as a pest management, fertilizer, and growing resource for farmers.

“We’ve had our eye on cannabis from Day 1,” says Matt. It’s a good resource for fiber, seed, and cannabinoids, and everyone in the industry, he tells me, is dropping themselves into one of those buckets. Triangle Hemp’s focus is on cannabinoids, of which over 100 can be found in the hemp flower. It’s the therapeutic value of the cannabinoid CBD that Matt says is most exciting to them. CBD has been shown in a number of scientific studies to provide anti-tumor, anti-epileptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant properties, with only very few minor side effects reported. “It’s energizing to hear people come to us and say that CBD is allowing them to ease off of their anxiety medications, reduce dependence on pain medications, treat their PTSD without any side effects. It’s incredibly motivating. We love planting tomatoes, lettuce, and basil, but giving people good food is not on the same level as providing a novel solution to the opioid epidemic.”

While CBD shows promise in treating many health issues, it recently gained one piece of mainstream validation when the FDA approved an anti-seizure drug derived from CBD oil to treat two rare forms of epilepsy. And there are other diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s, that currently have very few treatment options, and for which CBD may prove to be effective in ameliorating symptoms with a better safety profile than other prescribed drugs.

More research still needs to be done by the scientific community on health claims associated with hemp before we can all dump the contents of our medicine cabinets and fill it with CBD oil. In the meantime, though, the farming community is gearing up for what they hope will be an embrace of hemp by mainstream society as it learns more about it. And Triangle Hemp is doing its part to contribute to the widening body of knowledge surrounding the crop—how to grow it, how to sell it, and what it’s good for. “This is really the first year we’ve been able to [get our plants into the field],” says Matt. “And a ton of information is going to come out after this year about things like best practices for growing, how to deal with pests, etc.” Matt and Chase have close to 60 farmers working with them, and say there are at least 330 farmers growing hemp in the state as part of the pilot program.

One of those farmers is James Edwards, principal farmer at Raleigh City Farm. James has over 90 hemp plants currently in the ground at the site on North Blount Street, which he says should be ready to harvest by October. In the meantime, he’s scouting local connections for the sale of the hemp flowers. Like many other farmers in the region, James is hopeful that hemp could be the most valuable crop on his farm, and the difference between “getting by” as a farmer, and making a good living. But for now, it’s a wait and see game. His and other farmers’ success will depend on the public’s interest in and comfort with a substance that’s long had a whiff of illegality.

A bill is currently sitting in Congress that will federally legalize low-THC hemp and officially distinguish it from federally illegal marijuana, though it would still be up to states to provide regulation. That should be decided by this December. In the meantime, Matt and Chase are making sure farmers like James are ready.