Virginia hemp farmer preps – and waits – for legal marijuana
- Written by John-Henry Doucette
- Category: Local News
- Published: 16 February 2023
By John-Henry Doucette
Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO
Brad Wynne was a school teacher in Hampton Roads before he found his true calling – farming. It was his gateway to hemp, and maybe more.
Wynne, 41, grew organic herbs and produce in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach before finding a niche in commercial hemp. He is also among the Virginians poised to someday fill demand for a legal recreational marijuana market.
Wynne became interested in hemp five years ago, and he shifted his business, Veg Out Organics, to grow, process and sell organic hemp and CBD products. Veg Out Organics has three key pieces – a farm in rural Virginia Beach, a greenhouse for testing various strains of hemp and a lab for processing the plants for its skincare line.
Wynne has his eyes on an even bigger, more lucrative market, but efforts to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia remain in limbo.
Virginia legalized limited growing and possession of marijuana by private individuals in 2021, but sale of recreational marijuana remains illegal. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has not signaled support for legalizing retail sales, and measures to set up a legal market failed this year in the General Assembly.
Potential growers have been forced to re-examine their investments and revamp their business plans.
Wynne and other hemp growers have banded together as part of the Virginia Cannabis Association, a lobbying and trade group seeking legalization and better regulation of hemp products. Wynne is also a member of the new Virginia Beach Cannabis Advisory Task Force.
Interviews with Wynne have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I want to destigmatize the plant.
I’m certainly of a generation in which marijuana is very frowned upon. It is a “gateway drug” – you do this, and then, the next thing you know, you’re doing acid and everything else. That’s just not the case.
There are so many benefits with the cannabinoids you can have [from] consumables to oils and everything in between.
In 2018, I saw hemp coming on the market and said, “This is kind of interesting.” We made the switch in 2019, and there was a transitional period phasing in hemp and phasing out produce. In 2019, we did research and development and had a lot of failed business conversations.
We planned to do a soft launch of products in 2020. … [but] the world went upside down because of the pandemic. The lockdown was good because we did a lot of self-reflection about the business. I decided to do skincare.
Uncertainty about a recreational [marijuana] market determines what we can grow, but we know what we’re doing with our hemp business. We know what to plant, when to harvest and when to test. A lot of people don’t.
I hope the state will allow businesses to do hemp and and to do cannabis. If they don’t, everybody’s going to do THC. My hope is that we’ll do both.
It is much more profitable to grow THC rather than hemp. You can wholesale hemp flower at $40 per pound. In theory, you could wholesale marijuana for more than $1,000 per pound, if we had a legal market now. We’re being a little general, but say it’s $500 per pound, it’s still 10 times more.
That’s why, for hemp farmers, you have to be vertical [and control production, manufacturing and distribution] if you want to make money.
I could grow [marijuana] today if legalization of a recreational market happened. I’d just have to switch seeds.
We only grow hemp. Period.
There are growers out there who grow hemp and a little THC on the side because who’s going to stop them? When you’re looking at it, you don’t know. It’s like looking at a tomato plant. You can’t just tell by looking at it what’s what.
That’s how a lot of this gray market is flourishing right now, let alone stuff coming in from out of state.
We went to hemp-based topicals because, from a legal framework, it’s a safer play. Everyone is going after what you can inhale and what you can consume. There are gray areas, and those are too messy. [It’s safer] to do topicals from a regulation standpoint. It’s seen as safer because people aren’t using it to try to get high.
With our skincare products, if everything goes well, we can be this sort of two-headed monster when legalization happens. Under two totally separate [companies], there could be skincare, hemp, etc., and a THC business, as well.
What we were trying to do here is say, “We can have a win-win.”
A lot of these people who are setting these things up are setting it up for THC. We’d still have hemp here.
I like experimenting. How long would these do with minimal heat? It’s obviously going to take longer to grow, but how would it do? In theory, testing for a future legal recreational market, do they survive in the winter?
The reality is no. We’d have to do supplemental heat. With the cost to heat it, you need to make a financial consideration. For CBD, it’s not worth heating it. For recreational marijuana, it would be.
In 2019 and 2020, everyone thought hemp was going to be the golden ticket. [But] if you’re relying on this crop to save your farm, you’re going to have issues. If you do it to diversify, sure.
It’s not just growing it. How are you drying it? Are you processing it? What’s your end goal for your final product?
The hardest part about our greenhouse and the construction of it was electrical. We went through a few electricians and general contractors. I have a good electrician now who I like, and I use him for everything. They can do stuff for me at our lab, too.
The lab has some basic equipment for extraction. It’s not enough for what we’ll grow at the farm, so we’ll raise more money to buy the expensive toys, if you will. We also use it for the fulfillment of our skincare products. We make the extract, and then the extract goes to a separate lab in California. We work with them on what we want in it and [have] tons of different trials.
It would be cheaper for me to buy the [CBD] extract than to grow it and then process it. But [we] make sure it’s as organic as possible at each step.
It’s a quality control thing, and it’s a differentiating factor: We grow it. We process it. We sell it.
Eventually, once THC is legal, yes, there will still be bad characters out there, just like with any industry. But there will be a lot of small businesses, and, hopefully, the general consumers out there who get to know and trust us.
I don’t think the boom of legalized recreational marijuana sales is necessarily here in Hampton Roads. I think it’s more for tobacco country, the western part of the state. It can really benefit a lot of farmers out there. They don’t know exactly how to do it. They have obvious knowledge, but, just like any plant, you’re growing it for the first time and learning how to do it.
[If a legal recreational market occurs,] just think about the tax money you could get. Think about what we could do with that money. In Virginia Beach, we could use it all for flooding and clear out these ditches.
People just don’t realize how much money we could get to benefit the city.