On September 10, four days before Hurricane Florence crashed into the Carolinas, 20 or so active duty military members and veterans, this writer and Navy veteran included, volunteered to harvest five acres of hemp in Godwin, N.C. – what turned out to be 3,000 pounds green.

It remains something of a mystery where this hemp wound up after an out-of-state broker drove off with it in a U-Haul. The broker said he was delivering it to a processing facility in Tennessee, while others claim it went to one in Charlotte. And it took nearly two months of stressful communications for the farmer to receive payment in early November.  

But before the details of this drama came to light, we had each answered the call made by that farmer, Robert Elliott, to help harvest his hemp before the storm. A Marine veteran and first-time hemp grower, Elliott is also the director of the five-week Soldier to Agriculture (STAG) program administered through the Agricultural Institute at NC State.

Some of those who volunteered that day had gone through the STAG program before. Others, like myself, signed up for the program session that essentially began that September day with a crash course on the urgency of harvesting a crop with a hurricane on the way. And still others, like Richard Dean from Heritage Hemp Farms in Dunn, N.C., were friends of Elliott’s who volunteered just because he asked.

[Image: Richard Dean (orange shirt) of Heritage Hemp Farms demonstrates how to pull and remove the roots from the hemp plants BY Gary Band]

The man who made it happen

Elliott, 39, who has a long history of helping others himself, grew up on a 1,000-acre farm near Louisburg, 30 miles northeast of Raleigh, owned by his late beloved aunt, Jane Langley, who passed away in 2017.

He served in the Marines from 1997-2002 and worked as an aviation mechanic. Elliott came back to North Carolina and did similar work as a contractor for the Marines at Cherry Point for 10 years before returning to what came be called Cypress Hall Farms in 2011 – something he never thought he’d do but turns out he was pretty good at – contributing considerably to its goat, hog and turkey raising operation.

In 2014, he gave a speech at RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) in Pittsboro before representatives from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, N.C. Farm Bureau Insurance Group, Farm Credit, the USDA Farm Service Agency and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. (See Sidenote)

Elliott later won an Innovative Young Farmer award after being nominated by his Franklin County Cooperative Extension agent, Martha Mobley. Dr. Beth Wilson, director of the Agricultural Institute at NC State, was in attendance when he accepted the award at the NC Farm Show in Raleigh in 2016.

Inspired by what Elliott had to say, Wilson worked with him to create the Soldier to Agriculture program, which began in July of 2017. Conducted 12 times since its inception, it offers an introduction to aspects of farming through lectures, field trips and hands-on projects to those transitioning out of the military. More than 100 people have gone through STAG so far.

I met with Elliott at Fort Bragg in late August of 2018 to talk about enrolling in STAG and quickly concluded it was something I should do. A few days later he put out the call asking for help with his harvest.

Into the fields

Driving the 90 minutes or so from Cary to Godwin was itself an experience for this new arrival in North Carolina. The seemingly endless number of stores and subdivisions in the suburbs finally gave way to freestanding homes, farmhouses and even more seemingly endless fields of cotton and tobacco.

Just after 9 a.m., following a stop at a small country diner called Tart’s Grill I arrived at the 100-acre Jackson Farm, owned by Tom Jackson. He leased five acres of land – spread out over two fields I would later learn – where Elliott “talked me into letting him grow hemp,” Jackson later said.

By 10 a.m. we were all in the field, pairing off to pull up the plants, clip off the roots with pruning shears, pile a few plants together and tie them into bundles. We also needed to brush some of the plants to knock off the dry flowers. We were offered rubber gloves, and those who declined soon saw their hands covered in dark resin which required rubbing alcohol to remove.  

Slow going at first, the rows of plants seemed to go on forever. Despite efforts by Elliott and others to weed-whack on several occasions during the May to September growing season, the pig weed in between the white plastic-covered beds was still dense, causing those older and less-experienced folks in the ways of farming, like myself, to stumble a few times. Fire ants were also a factor, quickly covering and biting the hands and arms of those trying to tie the bundles.  

New pairs, groups and solo harvesters formed and broke off throughout the day to get the job done, collectively cooperating to brush, pull, clip, bundle or load into the U-Haul that began making its way through the field around mid-day. As we moved across the rows, progress could be seen in the barren beds where the smaller plants had been.

[Image: Robert Elliott walks off the field after cutting his last hemp plant BY Gary Band]

Sidenote

“I never thought I would be a farmer,” Elliott said to his audience at RAFI in Pittsboro that day in 2014. “I chose the Marine Corps over farming because I thought it would be easier. In many ways it was … farming is therapeutic to a lot of us. Some simply can’t relate to the civilian world anymore, which makes a farm a wonderful place for us. I could even see farming being a way to end the homeless and jobless veteran problem in this country.”

After earning an associate’s degree, Elliott transferred to NC State to study mechanical and aeronautical engineering, but soon became disenchanted with the future prospects of sitting in a cubicle somewhere.

“I left college and took to the field,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that my family has land for me to work on. Most people wanting to get into farming don’t have that luxury. Even fewer veterans do.”

With 65 being the median age of farmers, many don’t have someone to pass their land onto. “I believe that this is a problem in America today,” Elliott said. “The farms of America are diminishing more and more.”

Before being asked to speak at RAFI, the main question Elliott had in the volunteer work he did with groups like the Wounded Warrior Project and others was how to link veterans to older and retiring farmers.

“How do we find the great men and women who don’t have someone to pass their farms to?” he asked himself along the way and rhetorically to the assembled group that day in 2014. The answer came to him: Farm Bureau and Farm Credit know who they are.

“You are the missing link that can bring this all together,” he said. “We’ll get the veterans, you get the farmers and we’ll meet in the middle … we lack the people needed to continue agriculture and revitalize the entire system. Veterans fill that void. We don’t mind putting in the long hours and doing whatever we have to do to make things work. We can accomplish anything if we’re given the tools and support we need.”

Elliott has since gone back to school at NC State where he’s now pursuing a degree in agricultural environmental technology. He’s also trying to buy land to start a six-month farming program for veterans on an incubator farm in Sanford, N.C.

Halfway there

At around the halfway point the plants started getting bigger and harder to pull out. It wasn’t too hot, but the sun was out and started beating down early afternoon. Partly cloudy in the low 80s, it surely could have been worse. After a watermelon break it was back to work around 2 p.m. with about a quarter of the main field left to go. Volunteers came and went, new ones arriving and some of those who had been there from the start beginning to leave.

At this and other points, I observed what I thought to be an amazing operation of committed volunteers moving with determined precision to get the job done, performing this wholesome, hard-ish labor, the fruits of which would help heal those suffering from myriad conditions.

I thought of what we were doing as turning swords into plowshares, or guns into pruning shears, trading instruments that hurt for plants that heal. Of how this scene represented the potential for a profitable future for so many in the region, whether getting out of the military or transitioning from conventional farming, needing to provide for themselves and their families. I felt proud to be part of the operation, fortunate and somehow honored to witness this collective contribution.

As the main group of volunteers moved ever closer to the final row, the U-Haul that would later carry off the full harvest – to where we were told repeatedly was a processing plant in Tennessee six hours away – was coming up and down the rows, one or two volunteers tossing the bundles in the back. Every plant had to be pulled and time was of the essence as the broker and his wife kept telling us they had to get on the road ASAP.

Needing a break from pulling and clipping and seeing lots of small bundles around 10 feet apart, necessitating numerous pick-up points, I started making small piles into bigger ones around 20 feet apart. Soon others joined in and the end was in sight.

[The story continues below.]

One acre to go

By about 3:30 p.m., feeling I’d done all I could for the moment, with the U-Haul closing in on my position and maybe three more rows of now bigger bundles to load onto the truck, I left the field to get some water and more sun block. I ran into Elliott who I’d passed at close range maybe twice all day. He said he was getting a few guys together to head over the other field.

“Other field?” I said weakly, disbelieving.

“Yeah, it’s another acre of smaller plants,” he replied. “You wanna ride with me?”

Uh, sure. I climbed in his white Ram pickup and off we went across the street to the other side of the farm.

Paired with Mohaned – an Army soldier about to process out after six years of service – we made quick work of what turned out to be much less daunting acreage.

By the time nearly all the plants had been pulled, I took a break to down a coffee. Hot and tired, my head pounding, I was ready to call it quits. I took a photo of Elliott cutting the last plant of the crop he and others had worked so hard to grow. The broker and a few others loaded up the last of the hemp and took off for the weigh station.

But before we could call it a day, one last thing would be asked of us.

Thinking he was approaching Mohaned and me, the last volunteers standing, to thank us for a job well done, Elliott said, “All right, one last thing guys. I need y’all to each take a bucket, go back through both fields and grab anything we missed,” Elliott told us.

And so we did.

[Image: Mohaned hitches a ride in the U-Haul with the harvest BY Gary Band]

Back to the burbs

When it was done, Mohaned went in search of the weigh station. I searched for a place to buy aspirin, Gatorade, water and peanut butter cups.

En route home, beyond the sense of purpose and participation, completion and camaraderie after my first-ever eight-hour day harvesting a hemp field in my late 40s, I thought about the experience as a journalist always does: how to write up what I thought would make a great story for a newspaper or magazine.

While winding my way back through the cotton and tobacco fields, waving to farmers in trucks and tractors from my wholly out of place Honda Accord, I thought about Robert Elliott and Richard Dean and Tom Jackson, of all the volunteers, everyone and everything else involved in making this happen. I thought of this industry, all the people and component parts involved at this time and place.

Those I’ve met in the hemp industry since that day have inspired me.

Plans for the future

For his part, Elliott calls his first grow a success and a learning experience. Although he still has “no clue” where his hemp was delivered, and despite losing money and dealing with people and situations he hopes never to again, he paid his investors back and has plans for a future vertically integrated venture.

“My losses were my own, but I could never sleep at night if I borrowed money and couldn’t pay it back,” Elliott said.

He didn’t earn what he hoped, due in part to blight in some of the plants, and losing 50 pounds of flower drying in a barn when part of the roof ripped off during the storm.

[READ: N.C. hemp farmers applying for hurricane relief]

“But getting the crop in and harvesting it made all the difference in the world to me,” Elliott said. He thanks everyone who helped with the operation, including lead grower Dustin Grimsley, RD Lee Farms in Erwin, Veteran’s Farm of NC, Bio-Regen Cooperative and all the volunteers.    

As evidenced by the efforts of Elliott and others across North Carolina, the hemp industry is happening in a huge way. The potential of this plant is populating counties across the Tar Heel State and beyond with cool and concerned people committed to healing themselves, their friends, family and neighbors in a natural, non-addictive way. Not to mention those innovators and entrepreneurs doing work focused on the hundreds of other uses for hemp beyond CBD oils, creams, edibles and smokable flowers.

Along with successful start-ups and ongoing money-making operations there’s plenty of drama and disappointment, but these pioneers are working hard to pave the way for a brave new world in the new south.

“We’ll get the veterans, you get the farmers and we’ll meet in the middle … “

Gary Band

Gary Band

Reporter

Gary Band has worked as a reporter and editor since 1999 at weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, Vermont, northern New Jersey and western New York. He lives with his wife in Cary, N.C.