LEICESTER, N.C. — It's easy to get swept away in the magic of a hemp farm where dragonflies float and goats bleat on verdant hills. Franny's Farm is a place where practical magic and science meet.
Owned and operated by Franny Tacy and her husband and CEO Jeff Tacy, Franny's is an active hemp farm in Leicester, and one of the grower sites for North Carolina State University's Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program. The program's aim is to shoulder the burden of trial and error for farmers who want to dig into a swiftly growing industry.
Franny Tacy was a pharmaceutical industry executive for a decade, and also holds a forestry degree from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and a master's in education from Tennessee State University.
She's also the first female industrial hemp grower in Western North Carolina and, as a woman, part of the fastest-growing farmer demographic in the U.S. The future of hemp, she said, is female.
"The hemp revolution, if you will, in Western North Carolina is being led by female researchers, and female growers and female business owners," she said.
Meagan Coneybeer-Roberts, a Ph.D. researcher and part of the Alternative Crops and Organic Research group at NC State, and Gwen Casebeer, a master's student at NC State, are two of the women leading hemp research in the region.
Their work focuses exclusively on industrial hemp, with field trials taking place on seven regional grower farms: four in Buncombe County and three in Caldwell County, all averaging 1,000 plants per acre, with the largest site a biodynamic grower in Caldwell with 6 acres.
"We take the burden of risk and we take the burden of experimentation, and we allow the growers to take what we find that works," Coneybeer-Roberts said. "Then they can use that to make money and grow hemp successfully."
On the day research clones were planted in Tacy's field, shortly after Mother's Day, shamans came to tap drums and bless the plants. While inviting a shaman to a hemp planting might sound as Asheville as you can get, Coneybeer-Roberts said ritual can easily co-exist with science.
"There are indications that plants respond to music, to sound, to vibration," she said, standing on the edge of the field where volunteers planted buffer plants around her research rows. "It certainly couldn't hurt."
Before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act swept hemp away in prohibition, American farmers long grew the plant for fiber, feed and more, with George Washington one of hemp's more famous cultivators.
"The government even encouraged them to do so," said Dr. Jeanine Davis, adviser to Casebeer and Coneybeer-Roberts. Davis is an associate professor and extension specialist with the Department of Horticultural Science at NC State.
It wasn't until the 2014 Farm Bill, under then-president Barack Obama, that growers were allowed to plant pilot industrial hemp plots, and only under the umbrella of universities and state departments of agriculture for research.
Ever since President Donald Trump signed into law the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, hemp containing less than 0.3% THC is now regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, moving it out from under Drug Enforcement Administration regulation, Davis said.
The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it is no longer a controlled substance under federal law, allowing for the possibility of crop insurance and opening doors to bank funding, Davis explained. "People should be able to grow more freely."
At the same time, according to an FDA statement, Congress preserved the FDA's authority to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and section 351 of the Public Health Service Act.
"The FDA will now help, and some will say hinder, us decide whether CBD will be regulated as a botanical, a pharmaceutical, or some of both," Davis said. "I'm looking forward to rules and regulations on production so we, as consumers, know we're getting a safe, clean product."
Now, it's a brave new world, and hemp agriculture is booming in the state, with 3,000 permits issued for hemp growers this year, a 900% increase in less than a year.
The national appetite for hemp and hemp-derived products is huge, with Scientific American reporting the U.S. imported more than $67 million worth of hemp seed and fiber products in 2017.
Some of hemp's growth is likely influenced by the booming demand for CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid proponents say is useful for everything from arthritic pain to anxiety in humans and in pets.
The CBD market was worth nearly $200 million in 2017, triple that by the end of last year. Rapid growth is predicted to continue.
That's just one tool in hemp's toolbox, with the plant's uses counting among the tens of thousands, some largely unexplored, and many nowhere near as sexy as CBD. They include everything from fiber to cooking products to a building material called "hempcrete."
One size does not fit all when it comes to the plant, and plants grown for fiber might not be useful for oil. Figuring which plants are best for which use, and how those plants prefer to grow, is no easy task.
That's where the trials come in.
Proponents of hemp agriculture, like Tacy, hope the results could help North Carolina emerge as a leader in the industry. "You have Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes, and hopefully North Carolina hemp," she said.
Decades-long prohibition has left huge gaps in grower knowledge, and programs like NC State's and other hemp trials aim to fill in the spaces.
"There are multiple generations that haven't come into contact with hemp as a crop so, for production and harvest information, a lot of the resources I've used personally date back to the 19th century and in other countries," Coneybeer-Roberts said.
Working to push the notion of knowledge as power is the nonprofit Women in Hemp.
Co-founded by Tacy, LilyHemp boutique's Susan Cromer, Florida hemp attorney Carrie McKnight and Coeus Research founder Debbie Custer, Women in Hemp has worked to help back hemp research, providing, for one, at least a quarter of the funding for Coneybeer-Roberts' and Casebeers' project.
Tacy, who once started a junior high science club to get microscopes in her school, says she feels the same sort of childlike wonder in throwing her energy behind Women in Hemp.
It's the right mix of magic, science and activism that fuels her work on the farm. "Mixing science and magic is exactly what we were doing in the field this morning," she said in July, the field hemp not yet flowered.
She and a new hire had worked together under the hot summer sun, mixing organic fertilizer and rigorously testing and balancing the pH — getting the science right first, Tacy said.
Then, the magic: As part of biodynamic principles, they swirled the water clockwise 50 times, then counterclockwise 50 times to create a vortex over which Tacy read poetry.
"We have love written on our barn over our hemp field, and we go into the field with our best intentions," she said. "We're putting science out there, but our intentions are what are helping create a crop tens of thousands of people have access to in our product line."
Tacy grows enough hemp to create a vertically integrated supply chain for Franny's Farm products, sold online and in the company's four Franny's Farmacy dispensaries. Within weeks, the company will offer a public stock option, with franchise options also coming to the table.
Tacy hopes hemp will become North Carolina's new agricultural legacy, and her company is proof there's a strong market for it. "I think right now, we're in the gold rush era, if you will, and we found a nugget with CBD — no pun intended."
Of the 22 rows of hemp on Franny's Farm, NC State's trial plants occupy the center of five, each covered in different colors of plastic.
The red plastic, Coneybeer-Roberts said in May, might encourage flower set. The silver might have some utility in reducing insects. Black warms the soil, while white doesn't trap the heat as much. The green? "We don't know yet," she said, but it's something they've observed in marijuana cultivation in places where it's legal.
They won't know the impacts until later this year. The trials are double blind, and not even the growers know the identities of the hemp plant varietals, many provided by Triangle Hemp in Durham.
The results of what will be a three-year trial will eventually be compared with 20 universities across the world, including in Dubai, Barcelona and Texas. The trials will have studied hemp for fiber and food for three years at the end of this season, which will also mark the second year of CBD research.
Davis said she's not sure yet how the information will be compiled and disseminated. "But I think we're going to answer a lot of questions."
For a researcher, it's an exciting prospect to be on the forefront of the cultivation of a crop that's been illegal to grow for generations simply because of its association with a psychoactive cousin.
There's no real reason not to be optimistic. The question isn't whether or not hemp will grow here, but what kind is perfect for each region, and how to build the infrastructure to process it into an end product — which itself is a long and complicated story.
Hemp is often held up as a viable replacement for tobacco, once a booming industry and cultural influence in the state, now all but faded.
Part of the hemp narrative is the notion that the planting, growing and processing methods for tobacco can be easily transferred to hemp. But there are still so many questions left unanswered and, as Tacy will tell you, a lot of misinformation out there.
"The important thing to remember is we are still in a pilot program and still doing a lot of research, so everyone growing hemp in North Carolina has the exact length of time of experience," Coneybeer-Roberts said. "We are all equally experienced and inexperienced."
Tacy has a farmer's directness and a passion for her crop. "There is never going to be another tobacco," she said. "Tobacco has one use. Hemp is the only crop that will feed, clothe, shelter and provide medicine."
In five years, Tacy predicted, hemp prohibition will seem like nothing but a blip. "It will seem ridiculous that we ever didn't grow hemp. It will be in our food system, in our clothing system, in our building materials, our bio-fuels. Every aspect."
North Carolina has one of the strongest agricultural economies in the country, she said.
"We are farming people. We have a farm economy here, and our farmers have struggled with the loss of tobacco; they've struggled to get a foothold into something new."
Whether or not hemp will become North Carolina's agricultural calling card remains to be seen, though researchers will be one step closer to finding out after this growing season.
But on the sunny May day the clones went into the ground, Jeff Tacy addressed the volunteers gathered for the occasion, his focus on the day-to-day magic he said surrounds the plant.
"I'm in the dispensaries every day, and it's been mind-blowing the feedback we've gotten from people using CBD products," he said. "It's many miracles every day in these stores as we interact with people who are getting off opioids, and getting back to a normal lifestyle and finding relief from their inflammation."
"This is where it starts," he said, gesturing to the fields. "It's been an amazing journey."