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OXFORD — In a state where tobacco used to be king, rural farmers are hoping hemp can become a new cash crop.
Several Granville County farmers are rushing to transform their fields into hemp-growing investments and partner with a new hemp processing plant, Isolera Extracts, that opened its doors in Oxford last week.
According to owner Jack Tatum, Isolera will take industrial hemp, a form of cannabis, and extract cannabidiol, or CBD, oil from the plant. The oil can then be used in manufacturing a variety of supplements with reported health benefits.
The company is also offering to buy any industrial hemp local farmers bring it.
And because CBD products have been all the rage after federal lawmakers legalized industrial hemp in December, farmers say the plant may be the key to reinvigorating an industry that has seen demand in tobacco plummet.
“Tobacco farming is not going to be sustainable,” said Harold Blackard, owner of Blackard Farms between Oxford and Roxboro, whose family has been growing Tobacco for generations. “It’s about as bad as I’ve seen it in 50 years so there has to be something to take its place.”
Granville County Economic Development said about 100 farms in the county have faced declines in tobacco allotments.
Blackard said he’s begun testing his soil in hopes to be able to plant his first hemp early this summer. He said hemp is a labor-intensive crop, but he felt confident that younger farmers would quickly get the hang of growing it.
“I just hope (CBD oil) is not a fad,” Blackard added. “I hope there’s something to it medically. I hope five years down the road it doesn’t fade.”
That’s a hope shared by Isolera and its partners. The company offered free information sessions for farmers about soil moisture levels, sunlight, harvesting and state and federal laws. It is urging farmers to plant just a few acres this year and scale up down the road.
“The farming community is embracing us,” Tatum said during remarks at a ribbon cutting at the 187,000-square-foot facility on April 5. “This could be a change in the economy of this state if we embrace this. But none of this makes any sense if we can’t coach the farmers on getting acclimated on growing a new crop.”
That sentiment was echoed by other speakers at the event, including Kenny Flowers, Assistant Secretary for Rural Economic Development at the N.C. Department of Commerce, who called hemp a “game changer” for state agriculture and claimed Granville County was on cutting edge of the industry.
Blake Butler, executive director of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, said he believes the state has the potential to lead the nation on hemp production.
“What a beautiful thing,” Butler said. “Florida oranges, Georgia peaches — Virginia is for lovers — Carolina hemp.”
And Jackie Sergent, Oxford mayor, said the company is giving the community a chance to preserve a piece of its soul by keeping agriculture alive.
“Although not born and raised in Oxford, I have been here long enough to remember what it was like when the tobacco market impacted not only the traffic but also the smell of the air in downtown Oxford,” Sergent said. “Agriculture is a part of who we are in Granville County and seeing that staple and way of life dwindle over the years has been difficult to observe. The arrival of Isolera Extracts now offers the potential to breathe new life into the area’s agricultural economy.”
The facility, on Lewis Street, plans to launch with a workforce of about 40 employees who will process about 3,000 pounds of hemp each eight-hour shift. Within six months, that is expected to grow to 100 employees processing 10,000 pounds of hemp each shift.
In addition to extracting CBD oil, Isolera Extracts will identify batches of hemp, test biomass for chemical composition and grade the plants.
About 150 local farmers have indicated the plan to partner with Isolera Extracts.