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314966

Budding farmer aims to normalize hemp

Alissa Gardner is on a mission to combat the government overreach and public misconceptions faced by hemp growers.

When Alissa Gardner decided to plant hemp last year, she knew she’d have to educate others on the difference between recreational marijuana and hemp. She was prepared to be a beginning female farmer in Iowa growing a crop that hadn’t been legal since the end of World War II. She knew growing hemp for the first time wouldn’t be easy, but she didn’t expect so many roadblocks.  

In April 2020, Iowa farmers were allowed to apply for a license to grow hemp. The licensing and testing requirements were stringent and somewhat expensive, but Gardner had a lot to gain from growing this crop. Having her own supply of quality hemp would benefit her retail business, Farm to Health Organics, which includes a line of CBD (cannabidiol) oils, creams, and other hemp products. 

CBD can be derived from hemp or marijuana plants, but hemp contains no more than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which means it doesn’t provide the high associated with marijuana.

Finding Rest From the Stress

Gardner had been a successful real estate agent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but began to feel burned out, so she decided to walk away in 2019. “People thought I had lost my marbles,” she says. “I was at every event, and then I just disappeared and started raising chickens and taking naps on my trampoline.” Living on her husband’s family’s 150-year-old farm outside of Rowley, Iowa, gave her the space to finally rest.

When Gardner went from being on call all the time in real estate to sitting still, she struggled. “The winter of 2018-2019 was very long. I went through a bout of depression, and I wasn’t sleeping at night,” she says. “I started taking some hemp just so I could sleep or finish my train of thought, and it really helped.”

She started making soft gels that contained hemp and melatonin. “It was just what I needed,” she says. “The hemp plant is restful. It’s very calming to the central nervous system and helped me rest.”

Once she saw the results, she realized she could use these products to help others.

A Business Begins

She began researching and sourcing ingredients, and Farm to Health Organics was born. Since growing hemp was not legal in Iowa at the time, she had to find out-of-state growers. “I formed relationships with people I trusted and added products as I could, and now I’m up to 14 or 15 items, all of which I’ve used myself,” she says. 

In addition to a retail shop in Iowa City, Iowa, and local farmers markets, her USDA-certified organic products can be found online and in wholesale outlets. “I’m picky about who carries my products,” she says. “I’m not selling to vape shops.”

Since she had established relationships with growers in other states and was learning from them, she was ready to apply for a license as soon as growing was legalized in Iowa. 

The registration process was difficult and made worse by COVID-19. “You needed an FBI background check with fingerprints, but there were only two places in the state to do that because of the pandemic,” she says. “You had to really want to grow hemp to go through that.”

Farmers who received a license were allowed to grow up to 40 acres, but Gardner says, “I only grew 1 acre the first year because I wanted to make my mistakes small.”

Although her husband originally had doubts about growing hemp on the family farm, she pointed out that the 100-year-old planter in the barn had a setting for hemp. Eventually she won him over, and three generations of the Gardner family worked together to plant the hemp crop by hand the first week of June 2020. “We got a lot of rain in June, and hemp does not like wet feet so it was a tough month to plant,” she says. Fortunately, hemp can be planted as late as July and still harvested in September.

Gardner used the bucking method to harvest flower from the stems, which means they were stripped by hand from the plants, put into plastic bags, and frozen. “It kind of looked like Breaking Bad in our garage for a while,” she jokes. Again, the whole family was involved in the process.

Harvest Doesn’t Always Equal Profit

Once a hemp crop is harvested, the oil must be extracted. “Iowa made it super difficult for extraction here,” she says. “The law contradicted itself and there was a ton of misunderstanding on what we could and couldn’t do.” 

Gardner says to her knowledge, there was no extraction in Iowa last year due to the confusion and the $250,000+ price tag on equipment. “My husband and I drove down the interstate in a Ford Fusion taking 100 pounds of hemp flowers to our out-of-state extractor,” she says.

She had an outlet for her crop thanks to her retail business, but many growers struggled to find buyers. “They aren’t going to pay thousands of dollars to have it extracted into oil unless they have someone to buy it,” she says. “I know farmers that still have biomass in their barn, and I’ve seen round bales of hemp rotting because there’s no buyer.” 

Because of this, Gardner believes many people will be one-season hemp growers, and a recent report from the State of Iowa supports her theory. There were 85 farmers licensed to grow hemp in Iowa in 2020, and only 30 of those (including Gardner) have obtained licenses again for 2021, along with 16 new growers. “It’s hard to make money and it’s more labor intensive than corn or soybeans,” she says. “This is more like gardening, which is why, historically, more women have been growers.”

She would love to help more women grow hemp on a small scale, but the licensing is cost-prohibitive. “We shouldn’t be making Grandma pay $1,500 if she wants to grow this in her garden,” she says. “We’re also keeping farmers market growers out of it because it’s so expensive.”

Gardner is frustrated with the extra fees retailers must now pay to legally sell CBD in Iowa. “They’re making me pay as a retailer and wholesaler, the processor has to pay, and so do those who sell my line in their stores. That’s quadruple dipping on the same bottle of oil,” she says. She fears her wholesalers, many of whom are in rural towns, may stop selling her products as a result. “When the state is asking them to pay to be a location that retails CBD, there isn’t enough room for profit,” she says. “It’s hard when you feel like your state doesn’t support you as a farmer, entrepreneur, and business owner. It makes it difficult for me as a farmer to get excited about planting for 2021 because they just knocked the wind out of me on the retail and wholesale side of things.” 

She says the state could help support growers by legalizing the sale of hemp flower like Indiana just did. “This is the most lucrative way to profit from this crop,” she says. “When people buy the flower they can use it in medicinals, infuse it into cooking oil, and make their own products.”

The flower can also be smoked. “Iowa is so afraid of a smokable hemp product and it’s ludicrous,” she says. “You can smoke my entire field and you aren’t going to get high. It’s great for stress and the state is telling people they can’t have it.”

Educating Along the Way

Social media has become an important tool for Gardner. Facebook and Instagram photos show the entire family working together in the field. “So much of what I’m doing is public education. My own parents thought I was growing pot at first,” she says. “I wanted to show people we weren’t growing in our basement.”

Gardner has seen public opinion sway. “I was afraid at first to tell people who I grew up going to church with that I was making and selling CBD products, but now my most loyal clients come from that church and they’re very conservative,” she says. “Everybody and their grandma is taking CBD now.”

Along with accepting CBD, Gardner says people need to continue to educate themselves. “At first everyone was scared to take it, and now people aren’t careful enough about where they are getting it,” she says. “If you buy CBD on Amazon, how do you know what’s really in that bottle? We third-party test so you know what you’re getting.”

Visit Farm to Health Organics at farmtohealthorganics.com and follow Gardner’s 2021 hemp growing season on Instagram (@farmtohealthorganics and @iowagirlhemp) and Facebook (@farmtohealthorganics).

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