Matt Collogan spent nine years working at Airlie Gardens, teaching school children and other visitors about the myriad plant and wildlife at the New Hanover County attraction.
When he left his position as environmental education director at the gardens, he planned to devote his time to a small farm project, Centripetal Farms.
“It’s really hard to start a small farm,” Collogan said. “We were focusing on education as well as production, but, man, we just didn’t have the capacity to achieve all that.”
He still works on a farm at his house in Wilmington. “That’s my initial dream, to get back to farming and demonstrate that you can do it in a suburban area on less than an acre, but I needed a day job to fund that hobby,” he said.
Another opportunity to both make a living and share his knowledge came for Collogan in the form of an effort to bring industrial hemp farming back to North Carolina. A graduate of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s environmental studies program, Collogan is currently teaching the public and potential farmers and investors about the benefits of industrial hemp as education director and government liaison of The Hemp Farmacy, a downtown Wilmington store.
The Hemp Farmacy, 117 Grace St., is the retail component of Hempleton Investment Group led by Justin Hamilton. Another effort by the investment group is the N.C. Hemp Farm on the Legacy Farms campus in Wallace, although currently, organizers are not allowed to grow hemp there. Instead, Collogan said, they grow a plant called kenaf that looks similar to hemp.
Collogan describes industrial hemp as a plant of seemingly endless possibilities that could bring cash and jobs to North Carolina.
“Imagine being able to produce the raw material on a quarter of the acreage to build everything from plastics to car parts to textiles to furniture … and that’s just the fiber varieties,” he said.
For Collogan, advocating for the renewal of industrial hemp growing in North Carolina and beyond unites several of his interests including plant life, food and farming. His love of farming goes back to his childhood; Collogan’s mother worked for National Farmers Union for 30 years.
Collogan recently met with 40 farmers in Kinston to talk about how they might be able to one day produce hemp themselves and build interest in a hemp growing co-op.
He said the U.S. imports hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of the fiber variety, and cosmetics and food made with seed oil, from other countries.
Hemp produces high levels of the cannabinoid CBD, a chemical compound linked to a range of potential health benefits, including pain relief. Although related to marijuana plants, hemp plants produce much lower amounts of THC, the chemical compound that produces euphoric highs when people smoke pot, and much higher levels of CBD.
Explaining the difference between hemp and marijuana isn’t the only question Collogan faces daily.
Collogan is quick to point out to customers at The Hemp Farmacy that the hemp products for sale there are not FDA approved, not medicine, and the people who work there are not doctors or pharmacists.
Examples of hemp products, including some for sale in the store such as hemp lotions and gummies aimed at reducing pain, anxiety and inflammation, help him accomplish his mission, along with an Education Loft upstairs in The Hemp Farmacy, where weekly classes are held.
Production of hemp in the U.S. ended when the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 made it illegal. A 2014 federal agricultural law allowed states to start growing industrial hemp again for research purposes, rekindling interest in the plant as a potential commodity with which U.S. growers might be able to turn a profit.
“Economically it has the potential to be a boon for farmers across the state, as a new cash crop that can replace some of the older commodities that are fading out, namely tobacco and cotton,” said John Gurganus, farm manager at Xanadu Farms in Holly Ridge. “I applaud Matt, Hempleton Investments and others for working so diligently to make growing hemp in 2017 a reality in North Carolina.”
More than 33 states have passed legislation to take advantage of the bill, Collogan said.
North Carolina has the necessary regulatory panel in place, the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission, which includes Guy Carpenter, president of Wilmington- based Cape Fear Apparel.
But those who are pushing for the resurgence of industrial hemp can’t be certain when places like the N.C. Hemp Farm in Wallace will be allowed to start growing hemp.
“Hemp production has been legalized in North Carolina, but only as part of the state’s pilot program as allowed under federal law. As such, it will still be awhile before the first fields are planted,” explains a N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services website on the commission and industrial hemp.
The site says the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill in 2015 allowing the Industrial Hemp Commission to develop the rules and licensing structure needed to stay within federal laws, and that law was modified last year. The Industrial Hemp Commission has since adopted temporary rules.
Because industrial hemp seed is considered a Schedule 1 narcotic substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, an import license must be obtained to import seed into the United States and North Carolina, explains the state agriculture department’s site.
Certified seeds were reportedly being produced in Colorado and Kentucky in 2016, the website said, and the state agency has been working with the DEA to obtain an import certificate.
“We have growers who are interested in this across the state,” Collogan said. “And we’re not the only hemp gig in North Carolina. Right now, we’re all building the court, the basketball court, and we’d love to play ball soon.”