Jeff Allegood, the general manager of Old Courthouse Nursery, a 40-acre container nursery in Warsaw, N.C., has seen plenty of people in his state come down with a case of “hemp fever.” That’s his term for the buzz and activity around this emerging market. Hemp differs from typical legal cannabis production because it is more accessible for businesses. For instance, there is no cap on licenses and it’s cheaper to produce because it’s mostly done outdoors in the ground instead of in high-tech expensive grow rooms.
“That’s good in some ways because it gives more people an opportunity to make a play at it but it can also be bad because with the barriers to entry lower you get a lot of people jumping in that don't have a clue what they are doing or what's involved to be successful,” Jeff says. “The more novice people involved also creates opportunities for shady and unethical people to take advantage of them. There is no shortage of people trying to milk the situation for a fast dollar.”
A recipient of both NCNLA’s Bill Wilder Outstanding Young Nursery Professional Award (2013) and the Southern Nursery Association’s David E. Laird, Sr. Memorial Award (2015), Jeff and his team used knowledge and years of experience as nurserymen and propagators to learn the cannabis plant and then scaled up production. That’s what sets Old Courthouse apart from the start-up businesses that are caught up in “hemp fever.”
Old Courthouse has propagated plants to feed its own ornamental production for years and has learned to root a wide range of species and plant types. In some ways, hemp is just another plant. But it’s more complicated than that.
Nursery Management: How did you get started in this market?
Jeff Allegood: It's still such a Wild West scenario. We were watching hemp back when people were looking at it as a fiber crop. Then the CBD market came on so strong and we saw they needed propagated clonal plants. We already propagate. We already have greenhouse facilities and our nursery production feeds wholesale growers, field growers and other container growers. They kind of matched our model, so we just started to explore it.
We didn't have to break ground or build greenhouses. We had to upgrade ours, add some extra lights and whatnot. But we could step into it and if it didn't go like we wanted, we could just go back to growing ornamentals in there. We were able to test the market and make a play without as much risk as some of the companies that are starting from scratch and having to build greenhouses and facilities to even try it. There was enough demand that we mainly focused on propagating and selling the starter plants.
NM: So what types of hemp do you grow?
Jeff: We're strictly doing the high-CBD, low-THC varieties that are classified as hemp but are grown for the CBD extraction. There's a smokeable flower market that some people are chasing, but I'd say that the vast majority of it's going to be for extraction for CBD.
We are focused on propagating cuttings — we call them "liners" since that is what we call them in the ornamental world — but have tried to learn all we can about all aspects of the industry to help make our business and production decisions so we stay in touch with people on all levels of it.
NM: What kind of research did you do before ramping up production?
Jeff: Our background helped us, but we had to learn a lot. We went in knowing we didn't know this plant or all the processes or timing. That's the main thing I tell everybody: You’ve got to start small and learn it then scale up. We have 50 acres of containers and propagate all kinds of plants. But hemp is a whole different animal. With ornamentals, whatever kind of pests flare up, we've got a whole shed of chemicals to knock them back. With hemp, we've got to keep all that separate and keep any kind of chemicals out of there. We've had to learn beneficial insect cycles and non-toxic sprays. It was a big learning curve, but we knew what we didn't know. That's one of our advantages.
When we started propagating, we did four or five different hormone mixes. We did five to 10 different medias to root them in. The media that our ornamentals like doesn't match up to the hemp. Then, we did 10 or 15 different tray configurations, sizes and depths. It was a lot of trial and error the first year.
We ran through different kind of trials and experiments to see what worked. We noticed that guys from indoor backgrounds might do it one way or say, ‘Do this, don't do that.’ But they're growing in a controlled environment, transplanting to a controlled environment and finishing the plant out in a controlled environment. We're trying to make a plant that's going to go out into field soils and be planted through multi-row planters. It's a whole different set of parameters you need to hit selling a plant to someone to grow outdoors versus the processes you'd follow if you were going to an indoor greenhouse, where you can control more variables.
NM: Why did you decide hemp was a good fit for your ornamental container nursery?
Jeff: Whether you're propagating or growing in the field, hemp is boom and bust on labor needs. It’s hard to just be a hemp grower. You need a bunch of hands then you don't need many. Our guys can go and do pruning and potting and then when we need them, we can ramp up to prep and stick a bunch of cuttings.
NM: How do you determine which varieties to grow?
Jeff: All these varieties are so new to North Carolina that in two years you might have a whole different set. We have humidity and hurricanes and thunderstorms and a whole different set of field soils and climate than Colorado or some of these other states where the hemp strains were bred. We're going to keep watching to see what varieties perform well. Last year we had one of the wettest years on record and this year we had one of the driest. Something that thrived last year might struggle this year or vice versa.
NM: The hemp division has its own website, www.cbdplantsnc.com. Is it part of the nursery or is the plan to keep the businesses separate? What kind of feedback have you received from Old Courthouse’s ornamental customers?
Jeff: We keep them somewhat separate. But it's all the same footprint of ground and labor flows between the two. Ornamentals are still our bread and butter. Rumors got back to us that we were converting all the way to hemp. I had a few customers call me worried they weren't going to get their ornamental plants and I said, ‘no, we're not even close to that.’ We've got 50 acres of containers and four greenhouses of hemp. We don't plan on pulling out of ornamentals. That's what got us where we are.
NM: What does the future hold for the hemp market?
Jeff: In our area, the experienced, long-term guys have only grown it in the field for maybe three years. You can learn a lot in three years, but there's no historical yield data or fertility or genetics. Every aspect of it is getting figured out as we go. It's one big expensive experiment. You're planning to grow it for a profit, but every aspect of it is so new. Whether you want to be in it or not, you're part of the one big expensive experiment that is hemp in North Carolina.