Specialization in any industry is a sign of a maturing market. As North Carolina’s CBD industry begins to grow and develop, more businesses are looking for a definitive niche to separate themselves from the pack.
Enter Maya Gilliam. The founder and operator of Hempress Farms has a farm in Yadkinville that supplies a storefront in downtown Winston-Salem. Now, she’s using her vertically-integrated model to create a high-end “seed-to-bottle” CBD brand.
The Hempress Origin Story
“About two years ago, I went to a conference about hemp and how it was now legal and how to begin a hemp farm,” said Gilliam. “So, I started studying after that conference and getting all the knowledge I could possibly get. I wanted to learn as much as I could about this field before I actually planted anything into the ground.”
Gilliam said that while she was learning a lot on her own, she wanted to be completely prepared for her business.
“I started studying that for about a year and a half and then last winter, I went ahead and hired a consultant,” she said. “I paid him to make me a master grower. He kind of trained me as I was doing it, so I planted the first seeds early this year.”
After starting her indoor grow in early March, the situation around the country changed almost overnight. While the disruption forced her to close her other business, the downtown Winston-Salem spa Ma’ati, for the time being, she was able to use the “new normal” to her advantage.
“Then, COVID-19 hit, which was kind of weirdly perfect because there was literally nothing else for me to do but grow hemp,” she said. “My spa was closed so I had zero distractions. My first harvest was successful and my indoor grow went great. I followed my consultant’s instructions to the T. There were about ten pounds of premium hemp that was perfect. I sold it right away.”
Facing Obstacles As A Black-Owned CBD Brand
Gilliam might be seeing positive results now, but the road to her current success has not been easy. As a Black-owned CBD brand, she says she has faced several obstacles getting her farm going.
“There is a little club out in Yadkinville and I ain’t in it,” said Gilliam. “I tried to pay four different farmers to come and prep our land for us.”
She says that her first few leads for land preparation were no-shows after agreeing to work. Gilliam even reached out to an old friend from her days at nearby Forbush High School. That friend recommended another person after starting the job but not finishing.
It turned out that Gilliam did know this other person.
“That someone else, he gave me the name and I thought “woah,”” she said. “Because we all went to the same elementary school and I remembered this guy. I’ll never forget. One day, he shoved me up against the wall and punched me in the stomach. So I was like “okay, no thank you.””
It was then that Gilliam decided that she had to rely on herself to get started with her outdoor grow.
“I thought, “You know what? They’re not going to help us prep this land. I don’t know how to prep this land,” she said.
Gilliam worked with her consultant to find a workable–but expensive–solution. Rather than put plants directly into the earth, she used fabric bags to hold high-quality soil similar to what one might use in indoor grows.
While Gilliam says that she was only able to afford these bags and the soil and nutrients “by the skin of [her] teeth,” the decision allowed her to grow high-end CBD outdoors–a move that would help her carve a niche in North Carolina’s growing CBD industry.
More Than Just A Farm
But it wasn’t just setting up the outdoor farm that Gilliam decided to take on herself.
“I’d been doing a lot of research and a lot of farmers went out of business,” she said. “A ton of them went out of business because they only focused on growing flower. They didn’t focus on marketing, they didn’t focus on products.”
She explained that while there is plenty of room for people to make money in the CBD business, it isn’t necessarily from farming only.
“When you see Forbes and Business Insider talking about how CBD is the next billion dollar industry, what they’re talking about are CBD products,” said Gilliam. “They’re not necessarily talking about the flower.”
As someone operating in the higher end of the CBD space, she had concerns about her crop being mishandled–or worse.
“I’ve heard a few nightmare stories where farmers would send their flower to an extraction facility, then when they got their extract back they didn’t really believe that that was the exact same oil,” she said. “That’s especially concerning if you’re producing organically-grown flower. There’s no way you can really tell, unless you do it yourself.”
So, Gilliam went out and bought the equipment she needed to process her own hemp.
“I press my own rosin,” she said. “I decarb my own hemp and get it ready to place into products.”
Creating the High-End CBD Niche
Gilliam says that this vertical integration has helped her carve out a niche as a purveyor of high-quality “seed to bottle” hemp products. She says that customers appreciate the transparency of the process.
“They can look at our Instagram and say, “We know exactly who’s watering these plants and who’s growing these plants,”” she said. “We’re doing daily updates so we know where this stuff is coming from.”
And while her neighbors’ reluctance to help her get her farm started may have been an obstacle, the switch to a more controlled growing method has become a major part of that same transparency.
“There’s a lot of the stuff in ground,” Gilliam said. “There’s heavy metals in the ground and plastics in the ground.”
While this should be a big concern for those same neighbors that refused to help Gilliam, it isn’t for Hempress Farms.
“With our plants, we know exactly what’s in them,” she said. “There’s organic soil, and organic nutrients. So we’re super proud of that.”
Want to learn how some CBD brands are navigating North Carolina’s shifting cannabis laws? Or meet the state’s first major politician advocating for legalization? Stay tuned to our Business section for more news and information about the cannabis industry in North Carolina.