MONROE — For several weeks, lines of white plastic on approximately 120 acres near the outskirts of Monroe have fueled rumors.
The industrial hemp farm is the result of a number of factors coming together, perhaps the most significant of which is the passage of the 2018 federal farm bill, said Roy Hand, one of the principals in the project.
“That made farming hemp legal on the federal level,” Hand said. From there, the operation had to obtain licenses and permits to farm industrial hemp.
One important distinction needs to be made when it comes to hemp — it’s not the same as marijuana used to get high, Hand said.
“We have to maintain a THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] level of under 0.3 percent,” Hand said. THC is the part of marijuana that creates highs. He said at that level, it would be impossible to feel the psychoactive effects associated with recreational use of marijuana.
However, hemp farming is a new frontier, so security measures have been put in place.
Once completed, the entire operation will have a six-foot fence around it. There are also security cameras, alarms and motion sensors to alert the farm’s operators to any trespassing.
However, trespassers looking for a high would be disappointed in what they find on the farm, according to Hand.
“It really wouldn’t be worth their time to jump the fence,” Hand said.
The primary product of the farm will likely be CBD [cannabidiol] oil or products derived from it.
Demand for CBD products has exploded during the past several years as a treatment for ailments ranging from arthritis, anxiety and epilepsy to many others. While research is still being done on what CBD can be used for, it is known that it’s not an intoxicant.
“An inspector will come out about a month before we harvest and confirm that our THC levels are below 0.3 percent,” Hand said.
The goal behind the operation near Monroe is not only to harvest CBD oil, but also to provide quality control in doing so.
“There are a lot of companies out there that will put CBD on a label, but they may not have any in it,” Hand said. He said the goal of the operation, which is a joint venture between two companies — Healthy Mountain Premium and Flora Farms — is to provide quality control and consistent dosage.
To that end, the operation has enlisted the help of CannaSafe, which has the first lab designed specifically for testing of cannabis and CBD levels, according to Hand.
“Premium is the key word,” Hand said. He said the operation near Monroe is focused on providing consistency and high quality in its product. Eventually, the operation will include extraction functions on site. A green house is also under construction so hemp can be grown throughout the winter months.
“The greenhouse will allow us to have more control over everything,” Hand said.
While industrial hemp is a new player in the agricultural industry of Sevier County, Hand said he has felt welcomed by the community.
“People have been really great,” Hand said. He said many people are understandably curious about the operation, and have been supportive of the concept.
Eventually, Hand said the operation will be able to handle its production from a through z. He said the business will work both as a supplier of high quality hemp derived product as well as an economic stimulus for the area.
“This is a more work intensive type of crop,” said Greg Balotin, one the owners of the farm. Balotin, who holds a doctorate degree in pharmacy, said the operation is using local workers and suppliers wherever possible.
“With a crop that is this work intensive, there will be more spent in the community,” Balotin said.
Currently six people are working in the fields, and more may be needed if the operation expands. Some of the operation is located on fields leased from owners, while some of the acreage was purchased outright.
“We want to embrace the community and be involved,” Hand said.