LIGNUM—A field of more than 2,500 hemp plants flowers in eastern Culpeper County on a small farm where two men have taken a chance on reviving an ancient crop that until recently was illegal to grow in the United States.
Neighbors Mike Sauer and David Combs share an ardor for cultivating hemp, which they planted in June on three acres behind Sauer’s farmhouse in Lignum. They named their business Honey Hill Hemp.
Each of the business partners is driven by wanting to grow the plant to support production of cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive hemp byproduct used to treat childhood seizures.
Sauer, 46, is a reformed IT executive who left behind his corporate career to become a hemp farmer out of a desire to get back to the earth, help others, and have more time with his wife and four children, who range in age from 7 to 12.
“I wanted to be with my kids because they are only going to be kids for so long,” he said. “I had a serious decision to make—do I want to go back and chase the dollar and work for corporate America? I was making a good living, but it just wasn’t me. I needed to decompress and get back to nature.”
Sauer also wants to be part of the CBD supply chain.
“If one of my children was in that situation, having seizures, and I could help my child with a naturally derived substance from a plant rather than a pharmaceutical, I’m all over that,” he said.
Combs is a 28-year-old Army veteran who survived an explosive blast in Afghanistan in 2010 when a Soviet rocket hit a building and shrapnel struck him in the knee. Seven surgeries and four years later, the Lignum native made it back home, albeit broken.
“When I got out of the military, things were rough for a while,” said the graduate of Culpeper’s Eastern View High School. “It took a bit of adjustment. I still suffer from pain.”
The U.S. Veterans Administration prescribed opioids and psychiatric drugs. Combs tried CBD and found it to be much more effective at helping him live with the symptoms of his wartime injury.
“I threw away the opioids. I stopped filling the prescriptions,” he said.
Using CDB oil has allowed Combs to start hiking again, something he thought his injury had taken away.
“I have three daughters and I can take them hiking, spend time with them, live a fuller life because of it,” said Combs.
The Lignum native grew up gardening with his grandfather, who also raised fruit trees. The old trees stopped bearing, so they replanted, said Combs.
“We have about 75 fruit trees right now—16 different varieties of apples, pear,” he said.
Getting back into agriculture helped quiet the clamor of war.
“Originally, it was a therapeutic outlet for me when I got out of the military. I just wanted a simpler life again,” Combs said. “Now, this opportunity has come along, and I feel CBD and CBD products have a lot of potential to help veterans with PTSD and other issues.”
Effective March 21, Virginia legislators amended the state’s hemp laws to match the rules in the 2018 federal farm bill passed by Congress, which legalized cultivation of the plant for the first time since the 1930s.
The Farm Bill defines hemp as the cannabis plant, the same one that produces marijuana, according to the Brookings Institution. But there is one major difference— hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC, the compound associated with getting people high.
Virginia farmers can now grow hemp to produce CBD and other products. Its agricultural production is a growing revolution.
As of Aug. 20, the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Sciences had issued 955 Industrial Hemp Grower Registrations, 191 Industrial Hemp Processor Registrations and 55 Industrial Hemp Dealer Registrations, according to Jasmine Harwell, the department’s Industrial Hemp Program coordinator.
Culpeper County has six registered growers, including Honey Hill Hemp, and two registered processors, she said.
Hemp now planted in Virginia covers 10,100 acres or 10 million square feet, department spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm said.
In 2012, the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition formed to lobby for the growing and commercialization of hemp in the state. The group now has more than 400 members, said Jason Amatucci, president of the coalition based in Nellysford in Nelson County.
“Our goals are to build the networks of the Virginia hemp industry and to keep fighting for our rights regarding this beneficial plant,” Amatucci said. “Our current mission is to get our government to treat hemp and the people that grow, process and sell it with the same respect they give other crops and other businesses. We will continue to educate and use grassroots political advocacy to get there. It’s not a matter of if that will happen, but when.”
Last year, four public universities with state-approved hemp research programs planted about 135 acres of industrial hemp, including at the Orange County plantation home of the fourth U.S. president.
That was part of the University of Virginia’s “Founding Fathers” initiative to grow a three-fiber variety. To raise public awareness of commonwealth’s history as a hemp-growing state at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange and at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River in Fairfax County.
On a rainy day in late July, Sauer gave a tour around Honey Hill Hemp so named for the extensive beekeeping operation also on site. Raising bees was an interest he shared with Combs, who also raises hives on his nearby farm.
“The bees came first after my career in IT and what I would consider a high stress, high pressure environment,” said Sauer, who grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey.
“Bees are amazing—what goes on inside of a colony and how that colony works collectively together for the good of the colony. It’s not one bee for himself.”
The bees will not pollinate the hemp crop and their honey isn’t being harvested. The bees are on site strictly to promote the pollinators, Sauer said. He runs an outreach site on Facebook, Be Happy Honey Bees, and touts the homeopathic nature of honey, including potential relief for allergy sufferers.
“For me, this is therapeutic,” Sauer said. “My new philosophy is I do things for a cause, for a reason, and let everything else fall into place.”
His interest in bees grew into an interest in hemp farming as Sauer watched from the sidelines when the laws started to change.
“It came as a surprise to me in March of this year that Virginia was on board with it,” he said, noting the many uses for hemp beside CBD.
Approached by Sauer about growing hemp, Combs said, “Let’s go for it, a hemp revival. I was very much so excited to get into it.”
Besides CBD, industrial hemp can be used to make a wide range of products, including foods and beverages, cosmetics and personal-care products, nutritional supplements, fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibers, paper, construction and insulation materials, and other manufactured goods, according to a June 2018 report, “Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity” by the Congressional Research Service.
Industry estimates in 2018 reported U.S. hemp product sales at nearly $700 million annually, CRS reports.
Combs believes local hemp production will boost the local economy, pointing to all the items they purchased locally to get their operation off the ground, such as irrigation system and greenhouse supplies, weed barriers, drip tape, Pro-Mix, hoses, fittings, valves and injection systems.
Sauer said the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Sciences has been very welcoming, encouraging, and great to work with on the endeavor.
The department requires a police background check prior to licensing, along with a $50 annual fee. The Honey Hill Hemp partners have submitted planting reports, as required, and expect random inspections.
In addition to their Lignum plot, Honey Hill Hemp has another growing operation with 500 test plants on eight acres in the Shenandoah Valley being overseen by Sauer’s father. Sauer said it looks promising.
At the Culpeper hemp farm, the business partners built an irrigation system, providing necessary water on the many recent hot and dry days. Valves turn on different zones for irrigation on the fields.
They experimented with location—hemp grows better in well-drained soil on top of the hill, they found. They tried different types of seeds and seedlings, ultimately selecting high-CBD, low-THC varieties with brand names such as Virginia Gold, Cherry Blossom, Berry Blossom and “The Wife.”
Combs savors the process, though it’s been hard work and a learning process, he said.
“The art of growing it, the skills and the technique, have been lost through the years,” he said.
Hemp, a weed, is really not that hard to grow, Combs added.
“It just has its own particulars, like when it gets to full bloom or budding, it gets top heavy,” he said. “We have to deal with the wind, and it has a high nitrogen requirement, similar to corn in that aspect.”
Knowing when to harvest before mold sets in is important to not losing the entire crop, Combs added: “There is a fine line in the wet season of September when to harvest when the buds are in full bloom.”
Reflecting on his own CBD use, the veteran said he can’t scientifically prove that it cured him.
“But I do believe that has mellowing or relaxing properties. Yes, I do think it did help me,” said Combs.
He remembered how frenzied the corporate world made Sauer.
“It was just driving him batty. Now, we work more hours than we ever did,” Combs said, laughing. “It needs to be a labor of love. It has a potential to go well, but it also has a potential to flop.”
That’s why they started small, Sauer said, noting they are poised for growth. As of Tuesday, he said, the hemp flowers on site looked and smelled wonderful, similar to marijuana but without the THC.
Sauer said he doesn’t expect to get rich from growing hemp, saying that he is done chasing the dollar.
Combs embraces the hard word, harkening back to his cause.
“When I am out here in the 100-degree heat digging in the mud, if this helps somebody, it’s worth every bit of it,” he said.
Honey Hill Hemp will not produce CBD. It will sell the buds it cultivates to a licensed processor who will extract the oil and sell it to someone else for marketing.
Hemp farming speaks to purpose, Sauer added.
“We are doing something for a reason,” he said. “I have a soft spot in my heart for kids, and a lot of respect for the military and people like David who went overseas and had his leg blown up protecting our freedoms.”
Combs said CBD gave him back the freedom to live his life fully after suffering the traumatic injury that left his knee severely scarred.
He hopes Culpeper will accept and support what they are trying to do, ending decades of hemp being demonized and misunderstood.
“As people get more educated on it and realize its potential therapeutic or homeopathic properties, I think it will be much more accepted in the community,” he said.
In addition to growing, Honey Hill Hemp is now providing consulting services for others looking to get into the field. The farm is open by appointment for tours and educational outreach.