by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“Our main goal,” Travis Samuels said, “is in the processing of industrial hemp for hurd and fiber.” Samuels and his cousin Brandon McFarlane are co-owners of ZION Growers, based in St. Johnsbury, VT. Samuels gave an overview of their value-added hemp venture in the last of a three-part webinar series focused on assessing the feasibility of hemp-based business plans. The series’ sponsors were the UVM Northwest Crops and Soils Program, Northeast Extension Risk Management Education and SARE.

Industrial hemp, unlike hemp for CBD, is densely planted with a grain drill and grown primarily for its stalks. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, industrial hemp grows best when planted in row spacings of less than 12 inches. A typical seeding rate is approximately 25 to 30 pounds per acre. These high-density plantings result in tall plants capable of producing longer fibers.

Two products come from these long stalks: fiber and hurd. The outer part of the stalk comprises the fiber, and the hurd comes from the inner part of the stalk. Hurd fibers are shorter and are processed to certain lengths depending on what they are used for. There is crossover between the uses of each raw material. According to Samuels, both materials are currently used to produce erosion mats, insulation bats, compressed fiber board and paper products, etc. Hurd is used to produce hempcrete, a construction material which is a mixture of hurd, lime and other materials. There is also a market for animal bedding made from hurd, and it can be used as an ingredient in wood pellets. “Anything you can make out of wood or plastic you can make out of hemp,” Samuels said.

Samuels and McFarlane plan to process hemp for fiber and hurd, contracting with Vermont growers to purchase dried round bales. In spring 2022, they will begin renovations on the historic E.T. & H.K. building in St. Johnsbury. The building was formerly a livestock feed mill. “The building needs a lot of work but given its location within the town, it’s a very important linchpin to the town. You can see it as you come into town and from most parts of downtown, so not allowing this building to go to waste is very important,” said Samuels. Their timeline is to have the facility up and running by harvest 2022.

(L-R) Travis Samuels and Brandon McFarlane of Zion Growers are planning to process hemp for fiber and hurd. Photo courtesy of Howard Weiss-Tiamat

They will purchase a multi-step processor manufactured by Formation Ag in Colorado. The first step of the processor is a bale unroller. From there, the hemp moves into the most important part of the system – the decorticator – which separates the tough, woody interior of the stalks (hurd) from the soft exterior (fiber). From there, the processor can be used to create different sizes of hurd. This investment in equipment will ensure that the pair can provide the quality and metrics that fiber and hurd buyers want. Samuels said, “Depending on what you’re using it for, hurd has to be very specific sizes, and this system allows us to do that.”

This venture is ZION 2.0 for the pair. Their first business plan focused on drying, storing and selling CBD crops to processors. Then, according to Samuels, the CBD market crashed in 2019, leaving them with unsellable product. After their experience with CBD, they knew they wanted to stay in the processing sphere and started researching other hemp-based businesses. A lightbulb went off when McFarlane ordered a pair of shoes online, which came packaged in an endless supply of paper products. Samuels recounted, “So, it’s like you killed 10 trees for just the one box of shoes. Isn’t there another way to do this?” This small moment triggered the pivot to industrial hemp processing.

Samuels believes that industrial hemp has a far larger future than CBD. He said, “It has great market potential and is in a constantly growing market. The amounts of things that you can make from hemp really make it an almost ceiling-less market.”

Because of this, the cousins see a great opportunity for Vermont farmers, especially for dairy farmers who tend to own most of the necessary equipment: a seed drill, mower, rake and round baler. Samuels said the mower should be a sickle bar; other styles of mowers cause too much damage to the stalks. Unlike growing CBD, which may require transplanting and hand harvesting, the entire process of growing industrial hemp is mechanized.

Industrial hemp, according to Samuels, can play a part in a crop rotation plan. He cited research which showed improved yields in wheat fields planted after a year in industrial hemp. When the stubble is tilled under, it aerates the soil because the roots are deeper and more complex than other rotational cover crops. “Industrial hemp is something that can work well with what you’re already doing as a rotation piece but act as a cash crop as well,” he said.

The pair is busy trying to recruit growers. Given their experience with the CBD industry, they understand the risk for growers, and their goal is to offer a predetermined price per pound before the growing season begins. Upon delivery, the growers will be paid, assuming they deliver a product within their quality parameters. Moisture levels are critical; they must be below 15% moisture. The pair is looking to provide security for growers but also for themselves. They are currently identifying reputable buyers so they don’t end up in the position they did with the CBD.

Samuels and McFarlane are bullish on industrial hemp – for themselves, for farmers and for their community. “This is something that is really dear to me. We’re a very service-oriented community and bringing something like processing of this level will benefit this town, and it can benefit everyone just from the standpoint of an anchor business, something that produces jobs and hopefully a secondary market beyond that,” Samuels said.