“You here to pick buds?” asks a man standing at the gate. A few years ago, this question would’ve prompted suspicion. But now, this was confirmation that this was the right place: a farm in North Carolina where you can pick your own hemp.
Located in Orange County near Mebane, Merry Hill Hemp Farm is a gorgeous dip into the bucolic North Carolina countryside. It’s also got a huge field of bright green cannabis plants that opens to the public several times each year.
A Family Affair
Grace Holtkamp co-owns and operates Merry Hill, which also serves as a wedding venue, with her mother Lynne.
“Our farmland has been in our family since 1754,” Grace said. “We became a wedding and event venue in 2009, and then obtained our hemp grower license in 2017.”
Licenses became available after hemp farming in North Carolina became legal under the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program in the summer of 2017. While the first officially legal hemp farm and company in North Carolina was Founder’s Hemp in Asheboro, the Holtkamps weren’t far behind.
Merry Hill has license number 51 in North Carolina. Grace and Lynne were among the first licensed female growers in the state.
“We started growing hemp as part of our effort to diversify and keep the farm going,” she said.
Grace says that hemp interested them “specifically because of its amazing properties and potential – from the healing properties of CBD to the hemp plant’s ability to pull more CO2 from the air than trees.”
In addition, Grace said that the wide range of uses for the plant attracted her to it as a crop.
“Hemp can be turned into healing medicine as well as clothing and even housebuilding material,” she said. “All while it cleans the air and soil.”
“Pick Your Own Hemp” Becomes a Thing
However, the Holtkamps aren’t the only ones tending the fields at their farm. In addition to their bulk harvests, Merry Hill offers people a unique opportunity to pick their own hemp, the first event of its kind in the country.
“In 2018 we hosted America’s first Hemp Pick Your Own,” said Grace. “We’ve been committed to sharing our fields with the community as much as we can ever since.”
At the event, Grace provides information about hemp and instructions on how to harvest it. Guests receive gloves, trimming shears, and in the time of COVID-19, masks if needed.
Guests then go off on their own to clip their favorite “buds.” Then, they bring their crop to a weighing station. There, workers weigh it and price it just like most other agricultural goods.
Hemp Legality Questions in North Carolina
Even though hemp is legal by both federal and state law, hemp farmers have reason to be concerned about legal and cultural issues.
“Stigma is a major challenge we face,” said Grace. “Hemp is not marijuana and does not produce a high, but we still face cultural stigma around cannabis, including the attempts by law enforcement and legislators to ban hemp flower in our state.”
Law enforcement officials have complained that smokeable hemp is indiscernible from marijuana. They say that makes it impossible for them to effectively enforce marijuana laws.
Members of the state legislature have consistently brought up the idea of banning hemp in its smokeable form. As a result, farmers can’t necessarily count on their cash crop being legal or saleable in the future.
“As a farm that has always been focused on getting hemp flower directly to consumers, as opposed to making CBD products, we face a lot of threats to our ability to grow hemp as a small farm,” she said.
Hemp and the North Carolina economy
Despite these concerns, the state is seeing major growth in the industry. In 2017 when the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program began, there were 100 registered hemp growers in North Carolina. Two years later by the end of 2019 there were more than 1500.
“North Carolina is a great bioregion for hemp, with the ability to produce hemp of good enough quality to compete with any other state,” said Grace. “We’ve had customers who have purchased hemp from the major western hemp growing states and have told us our hemp is just as good if not better.”
Grace believes that hemp can help revive North Carolina’s agricultural sector. Growth would come as good news, especially to tobacco farmers whose revenues have been devastated by a shrinking domestic market and ongoing trade wars.
“Hemp offers the chance to boost North Carolina agriculture–especially for a new generation of younger, more diverse farmers and processors–while also offering an environmentally friendly future,” said Grace.
A Look at Hemp’s Future in North Carolina
Even with challenges such as legal volatility, cultural pushback, and the pandemic, Grace says it has been a good year for their farm.
“This year was in many ways a turning point for us,” she said. “We held on despite COVID-19, hosted our annual Pick Your Own Hemp season, and grew more varieties of hemp than before, with some smarter methods than last year.”
While hemp is, at this time, a new industry for North Carolina, Grace believes the crop could help the state revive some of its most traditional industries.
“North Carolina has a noble history of hard-working North Carolinians in the textile and tobacco industries,” she said. “Hemp can revive the textile industry and be the new tobacco – a healing rather than harmful plant, suited to our soil types from the mountains to the coast.”
She said she believes North Carolina can be “at the forefront of an exciting new future for cannabis and cannabis products.”
As for Merry Hill, however, her goals go beyond simply growing the business.
“We found new ways to bring our values of racial justice and cannabis equity reform more prominently into our farming,” she said. “I hope we’ll continue to find ways to share our farm with others as we work hard to grow high CBD sungrown hemp.”
Merry Hill’s Pick Your Own Hemp event has several more open sessions going through mid-October. Attendance is limited to 40 due to COVID-19 precautions. Tickets are free but required and can be reserved here.