June 15, 2021
Warrenton farm couple rides hemp roller coaster
Ashley and Jonathan Tufts have reason to smile at the end of their harvest last fall — before their processor left the state.
Hidden Hills Hemp’s first harvest produced 40,000 pounds of biomass on 10 acres.
Jonathan Tufts and his crew cut the 5- to 7-foot-tall plants with weed whacker blades.
In May, the couple launched an online store to sell their products.
We started researching about three years ago. Last year, we decided to take a leap.
— Jonathan Tufts
Hidden Hills Hemp
Ashley and Jonathan Tufts
Hemp farm with an online store
• First harvest:
40,000 pounds in 2020
• Retail products:
Full spectrum oils, bath and body products.
• Website: www.hiddenhillshemp.com
The Warrenton farm couple could star in a reality TV show about the fledgling hemp industry.
Determined, hard-working, smart and photogenic, they also face challenges that would drive a compelling plot.
Ashley and Jonathan Tufts already have non-physical bruises from Hidden Hills Hemp’s first, 10-acre crop.
“We get everyone from experienced farmers to people who have never grown a plant interested in hemp,” said Erin Williams, industrial hemp program manager with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Mr. and Ms. Tufts belong to the category of experienced farmers. He had made hay on 1,800 acres of family and leased land, primarily in 1,400-pound bales for mushroom growers in Pennsylvania, and she managed the business operation, while sometimes taking the wheel of a tractor.
But, the couple started thinking about diversification.
“Honestly, hay had kind of been dying out,” said Ms. Tufts, 34.
“We started researching about three years ago,” her 39-year-old husband added. “Last year, we decided to take a leap.”
They planted 20,000 young hemp “clones” along 74,000 linear feet of beds.
They chose a floral variety, grown for extract — as have the vast majority of Virginia growers since the 2018 Farm Act legalized hemp production, processing and sale in the U.S.
Virginia in early 2019 adopted legislation permitting the industrial production of hemp. That triggered a stampede to obtain state licenses to grow, process and sell the products derived from the crop.
The processing capacity and market for grain or fiber hemp — used in paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable packaging, insulation, biofuel, food and animal feed — remain relatively small. Human use of the plant dates to approximately 8,000 B.C.
Because oil gets used to make ointments, soap and supplements that humans take to relieve stress, pain and other conditions, those plants require intense tending — with no herbicides and only organic pesticides.
Mr. and Ms. Tufts treated their 10-acre crop on family land west of Warrenton like a big, well-tended backyard garden.
Late last spring, a storm bent most of the young plants in one direction. They had to be righted by hand, one at a time.
Then a summer storm blew the plants — most 2-1/2 to 3 feet tall — in the other direction, which required staking them up.
But, they persevered.
Last fall, they harvested their crop. That required cutting the stalks with weed whacker blades and lugging the 5- to 7-foot plants to a dump trailer lined with a tarp behind a tractor. From there, they transported the plants to refrigerated tractor-trailers for delivery to a processor along Interstate 95. Their harvest filled 10 trailers.
From 40,000 pounds of plant material, the processor would extract high-quality CBD oil for sale to companies that make products for the retail market.
But, as the holidays approached, communication waned.
“A few months after delivering our entire crop, we received an email about our processor running and leaving the state,” Mr. Tufts said. “We discovered he had been evicted from his rented greenhouse space for lack of payment. We had no idea what we were going to do.”
They salvaged 7,000 pounds of hemp biomass — about 17 percent of their harvest — and took it to another Virginia processor with an in-house chemist.
Hidden Hills Hemp’s “pivot” began.
A longtime DIYer, Ms. Tufts started making gifts infused with hemp extract.
“I wanted to create something different from the options I saw in our local market — a CBD brand locals can trust,” she said.
The couple last month launched an online store with a modest selection of oils (for oral consumption), body lotions, soaking salts, bath bombs, salve and candles. Their hemp shop offers full-spectrum products that use the whole plant.
But, they face yet another challenge.
The big social media platforms have policies that limit hemp marketing because of its previously illegal status and similarity to marijuana.
By law, hemp may contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC, which gives marijuana its psychoactive effect.
Mr. Tufts’ brother and sister-in-law own The Town Duck, a Main Street Warrenton where shoppers can pick up Hidden Hills Hemp online orders.
But, the farm couple hopes to focus on production and online sales to keep their business relatively simple and more profitable.
With a long way to go, they plan to stick with it.
But, with a big supply of oil on hand, they did not plant a crop this year.
The market has “a lot of unprocessed hemp plants and a lot of processed extract waiting to be sold,” said Ms. Williams, the state program manager. “I would say we are seeing a glut.”
Yet, the young industry in Virginia has remained relatively stable, she added.
The state had 862 registered growers in May, down from about 1,200 a year earlier.
“We didn’t see the huge drop-off that many states saw,” Ms. Williams said.
Still, it will take a while for processing capacity — especially for fiber — and the industry to reach a state of normalcy.
Virginia has only one hemp fiber processer, in Wytheville, with another planned near Elkton.
On their applications, the state’s registered growers last year reported they planned to plant 8,950 acres of hemp. But, they actually planted 2,200 acres, consistent with the year before.
“I caution people to start small, make small mistakes and know who your buyer is before you start,” Ms. Williams said. “Have a plan for your crop.”
Working with their consulting agronomist, who recommended the original processor, Mr. and Ms. Tufts did that.
Still, they struggled.
But, they plan to continue learning about and growing hemp — perhaps including the fiber variety as the market and processing capacity develop. Last year, that variety of hemp accounted for just 195 acres or 8.8 percent of those devoted to the plant in Virginia.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Tufts calls the work so far “well worth it . . . . Hemp has a great history and a great future.”
Ms. Williams has no direct knowledge of growers’ profitability but believes some have made money, given the continuing interest.
Ms. Tufts suggested that the market will grow as people learn about the plant’s many uses.
“We’re building a ‘hempire’ one small step at a time, and we hope our community loves what we’re putting together,” she said. “Keep an eye out, because we’re not stopping here.”
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