WEST SALEM – When brothers Shawn and Josh Cutter proposed growing hemp at their traditional family farm in 2019, their sister and mother weren't convinced it was the right move.
Their 500-acre farm produced crops like alfalfa, corn and soybeans for decades, so adding a new plant with little knowledge of it was a gamble, but the family was quickly swayed.
At the time, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had just passed a bill legalizing hemp with low THC (less than 0.3%) — the main psychoactive compound in cannabis — opening a new market in Ohio.
Once legalized, the brothers and their sister constructed the necessary greenhouse and facilities to cultivate, dry and mill hemp flowers, making Cedar Valley Growers the first hemp farm in Wayne County.
"We were concerned about the perception of growing hemp, but the more we learned about it, the more we knew about its benefits and how it is different," said Shawn Cutter, chairman of Cedar Valley Growers. "Now we want to educate people in our community about hemp and to help destigmatize hemp."
Two years later, the family has seen success with this switch, recently becoming a member of the Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce. They also have plans to expand operations onto Back Orrville Road, Cutter said.
This expansion would help the farm produce more cannabidiol, or CBD, products like gummies, lotions and electronic cigarette cartridges that can be purchased at the Cedar Valley Growers' website or small businesses in Wooster.
What is the difference between marijuana and hemp?
While marijuana is illegal in Ohio, its medical variety and hemp are not.
The main difference between medical marijuana and hemp, is the level of the psychoactive compound THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This compound is highly regulated for the "high" it can produce.
In Ohio, hemp products are limited to 0.3% THC concentration while medical marijuana can contain 35% THC, according to Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program.
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Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a second major compound in hemp and medical marijuana. Unlike THC, CBD does not cause a "high" by itself, according to a Harvard Health article published in September.
"In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential," a report from the World Health Organization stated in 2017. " To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD."
Hemp products, like the ones sold by Cedar Valley Growers, contain low levels of THC while there are no possession limits for CBD in Ohio.
2020 was a year of hurdles for Cedar Valley Growers
Despite their early entry into the market, Cedar Valley Growers' first year producing hemp in a largely outdoor operation was full of hurdles. There was a drought of information on cannabis cultivation in a state flooded with agricultural expertise.
Through Josh Cutter's research, the family derived much of their knowledge from Oregon and Colorado, where hemp has been legal since 2010 and 2014 respectively.
"It was a lot of trial and error and educated guessing that first year," Cutter said.
Among the first challenges was constructing a facility that could dry nearly 10 acres of hemp plants without collapsing in on itself.
"We hired a guy to design a drying facility, but as it turned out, he didn't know what he was doing," Cutter said.
Left with a 13,000 square-foot warehouse full of heaters, Cutter had to redesign the drying method. He crafted rows of poles attached to the ceiling from a leftover oil pipe that the plants would hang from to dry.
"We weren't sure if the structure would hold because that many plants is heavy, but in that first day the plants lose a lot of their weight in moisture," he said.
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While that structure held up, the machine he purchased to pluck flowers off the plant was too small, so he improvised.
Now, they use a mechanism with brushes from street cleaners to pull the flowers off, he said. Then the product is milled through a dairy feed mill before being packaged.
Once in a container, they ship it out of state to extract the CBD in a white powder form called isolate.
An unexpected first harvest
That first harvest in 2020 was chaotic, Chief Executive Officer of Cedar Valley Growers, Kristin Anthony, remembered.
They had planted 10 acres to grow for three summer months, and when it came time to harvest, the farm-grade harvester pulled up too many weeds.
"We didn't take the proper precautions with the weeds," said Anthony, sister to Shawn and Josh Cutter. "So, we had to do it all by hand."
To make the harvest, she added 20 to 30 temporary workers to their eight to nine-person team. People from around the county, including family and friends, offered to help as seasonal workers, Anthony said.
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"The outpouring of support for that harvest was incredible," she said.
To harvest the nearly 10 acres of hemp, each worker chopped and slashed at the plants with machetes and even one or two samurai swords, according to Shawn Cutter.
It was backbreaking work, Cutter remembered.
"I hope we don't have to do that again, but we're now taking the proper precautions," he said.
'We want to help people understand that these products are safe and are very beneficial'
Despite a difficult first year, the family managed to hit a rhythm.
Hemp is produced outdoors seasonally and indoors year-round.
While their first greenhouse harvest produced eight pounds of useable hemp, they have had five harvests since with over 70 useable pounds each time, Josh Cutter said.
To ensure they are in line with Ohio THC regulations, they regularly test their crop. If one is "too hot," or contains too much THC, they have to burn it, Cutter said.
"Now we're understanding what causes THC to fluctuate," he said. "We believe it has to do with the amount of fertilizer, the type of fertilizer and how much we water them."
Too much or too little water can put stress on the plant, forcing it to produce more THC Shawn Cutter said.
Hemp plants are also more sensitive to soil nutrition, Cutter said, so they monitor the soil used to grow hemp more than for their traditional crops.
To ensure maximum efficiency, they grow hemp from seed in a warehouse facility to about a foot tall before placing the plants in the greenhouse to finish maturing.
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"We timed it so once one crop is harvested, we can move the next crop into the greenhouse to grow for three months before that is harvested," Josh Cutter said.
With their farming methods largely squared away, Anthony's biggest goal is to expand their operations in West Salem to include a CBD extraction facility and a packaging and delivery warehouse.
But in the meantime, she hopes to expand their product line and have a larger presence in the community.
"We want to help people understand that these products are safe and are very beneficial," Anthony said.
Reach Bryce by email at email@example.com
On Twitter: @Bryce_Buyakie
This article originally appeared on The Daily Record: Wayne County hemp growers hope to expand Ohio cannabis operation