LEESBURG — For decades, hippies have been claiming the marijuana plant may have the potential to heal many of mankind’s ills; now it appears they may have been onto something for all that time, as opposed to just being “on” something.
Today’s medicinal hemp products contain a minute amount of THC, the main ingredient that gives users a “high” when ingesting marijuana, but millions of people say it packs a powerful punch in treating a number of health conditions. The 2018 Farm Bill allowed for the growing of hemp, and hemp products, often labeled as CBD, are legal in all 50 states.
About a third of adults in the United States have tried a product derived from the hemp plant in various forms, from tinctures that are placed under the tongue to lotions, bath oils, coffees and gummies. For many, CBD oil derived from the hemp plant brings relief for arthritis and other aches.
Albany-based Pretoria Fields Collective has launched an ambitious plan to enter the emerging market. The company, which also operates a downtown brewery, has worked from the ground up, enlisting farmers to grow hemp and has established a production facility in Lee County.
The company has about 60 Georgia farmers, most growing a small acreage of hemp plants, signed up for its inaugural year.
A University of Georgia researcher grew test plots last year near Tifton and in north Georgia, and the effort for Pretoria Fields and area growers is a learning process in 2020.
Some states, such as Tennessee, are ahead of Georgia as their legislatures approved growing hemp plants earlier. Now it is Georgia farmers’ turn to learn to grow the plant in an environment that can bring intense heat, humidity, insects and summer thunderstorms that can damage the crop.
“The majority of our farmers have held off for the winter growth,” said Lewis Rickerson, Pretoria’s agronomist and farm representative. “The majority of our farmers are going to be growing less than 2 acres.
“Our focus for this year is really on being small and getting the farmers used to growing a plant that hasn’t been selected for any resistance to disease or pests or adverse weather conditions. We want to get farmers to learn this year.”
Planting later in the year will help avoid some of the severe storms that can come in the summer, he said. The target date for the late planting is set for around July 13, with some growers likely to plant later.
“We also know growing later in the season gives you more biomass with respect to stem length,” Rickerson said.
While the plants come from the same stock as other marijuana plants — cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis — those grown to maximize CBD oil content are treated differently to keep the THC content low.
Rickerson likened it to growing a peach and harvesting it a little early, but in the case of hemp production, it means waiting until the plants flower and harvesting before they begin producing THC.
“What you’re doing with the plant is just producing CBD,” he said. “So (it’s like) you’d be waiting three months to pluck a green peach, plucking it before it starts to ripen.”
While waiting for locally grown hemp, Pretoria Fields has started production at its Lee County facility using plant material from other states. There, the biomass is first steeped in a metal chamber containing ethanol cooled to a chilly temperature as low as -85 degrees Celsius.
That process, called winterization, extracts the bulk of the valuable oil, said Kathy Blakey, Pretoria Fields’ chief science officer and lab director.
The liquid then goes through a steam distilling process to separate the oil from the ethanol, which is recycled to be used again. Further processing of the wet biomass produces additional oil. Once the work is done at the lab, the oil is transported to pharmacist Will Coley at The Prescription Shoppe. There, Coley turns the oil into hemp products, including tinctures and creams.
Coley manufactures the products in a sterile environment.
A third-party company tests the products for purity and presence of contaminants before they are shipped or sold at the pharmacy, he said.
“We test the CBD distillate, then we have the final products tested,” Coley said. “We use an independent agency that tests all our products before they leave and go out on the shelves.”
Most of the customers who purchase the products use them for pain relief and anxiety, Coley said.
“ CBD is anti-inflammatory and it’s naturally antimicrobial,” he said.
With its plan to eventually control the process from the seeds going into the ground to the finished product, Pretoria Fields is looking to be a pioneer in the field.
“We’re the first processor in the state of Georgia,” said Pretoria Fields COO Albert Etheridge. “We’re out farming, and we’re putting out products with the Georgia-grown logo.”