Hemp firm plants roots in Middlebury, will produce in old Full Sun spot
MIDDLEBURY — Netaka White was understandably crestfallen when financial reasons forced him to shutter Full Sun Company’s Exchange Street plant after less than three years of producing sunflower and canola oils.
But things are looking up.
Full Sun’s presses will spring back into motion in a few months. Only they’ll be pressing hemp seeds, not sunflower seeds.
That’s because Full Sun and its assets have been purchased by a Kentucky-based company called Victory Hemp Foods. Using hemp seeds grown in Addison County and beyond, the former Full Sun headquarters will soon be producing around 8,000 gallons of hemp seed oil and 50,000 pounds of hemp seed powder per month in what will ultimately be a non-GMO, certified-organic, food-safe production facility, according to Victory Hemp CEO and founder Chad Rosen.
“He was looking for a space and we were looking for a buyer,” White said of the fortunate chain of events that led to last week’s closing on the deal.
“It’s good to be back to work.”
White will stay on as Victory Hemp’s Middlebury production manager. He knows the equipment, farmers and other key contacts in the Vermont agricultural industry.
The seeds for Victory Hemp were planted at the end of 2014, following passage of the federal Farm Bill. That legislation legalized hemp for industrial research purposes. In spite of the fact that hemp doesn’t possess the same high-inducing properties as its cannabis cousin, federal authorities have historically classified hemp as a controlled substance. Rosen and others have long seen the healthful and utilitarian applications for hemp, and continue to push for elimination of legal roadblocks that are preventing the crop’s return to the industrial mainstream.
That 2014 Farm Bill gave Rosen the green light he needed.
“Our (Kentucky) legislators said we’re going to let private enterprise bring this crop into the rotation and find out what the market looks like,” Rosen said. “We threw our hat into the ring and thought, ‘If we’re going to do this, we need to do it now, because it’s going to be in the research phase and that means big agri-business is going to stand on the sidelines, so it will give entrepreneurs who have idealistic ideals about how the world should work a head start in how to set it up right.’”
Victory hemp is starting small, with a short list of products that are derived from the hemp seed. The company processes and sells hemp hearts — the little germ inside the hemp husk. It also makes cold-pressed hemp seed oil, and hemp protein powder. The powder is the byproduct of the seed cake, left over when the oil is squeezed out of the seed.
“It’s an ingredient for your food,” Rosen said, noting that hemp hearts or hemp protein powder is often added to smoothies, baked goods and other dishes. Some manufacturers are now using hemp as they would any other raw ingredient for their ready-to-eat products, according to Rosen.
“We are actually working with quite a few breweries that are using the hemp seeds and adding them to their mash fill,” Rosen said. “A couple of companies are using hemp seed oil in their salad dressings. There are a myriad of possibilities with these essential building blocks for healthy foods.”
VICTORY HEMP PRODUCES hemp seed oil and hemp seed powder, used primarily as a healthful additive for foods ranging from baked goods to smoothies.
Independent photo/John Flowers
The health benefits of hemp seed are many, according to Rosen.
“Hemp has an incredibly powerful bevy of nutritional properties in it that make it what we like to call a ‘functional super-food,’” he said. “It has more digestible protein than soy; it also has all nine essential amino acids in the protein.”
It also has more gram-for-gram protein than “any plant-based protein on the market,” according to Rosen, who says hemp “has a great ratio” of Omega 6 and Omega 3s.
“A lot people take fish oils for their Omega 3s, not realizing the fish don’t actually make omegas; the fish get it from eating algae or from eating plankton that eat algae,” Rosen noted. “It’s a plant-based polyunsaturated fatty acid. We like to cheekily tell customers to cut out the stinky middle man — which is the fish — and get to the sustainable source.”
Victory Hemp officials saw the Middlebury location as being very attractive from the standpoint that it’s surrounded by a lot of organic acreage in the Northeast, from New York to Maine, Rosen said. And it also possessed the right infrastructure to transition fairly seamlessly from processing sunflower seeds to hemp seeds. Victory Hemp is adding some additional equipment to the production line.
“(Full Sun) quintuples our capacity from where we are now and gives us a little bit of room to grown,” Rosen said. “We know we’ll be in the facility for at least the next three- to five years without having to add much more equipment.”
Victory Hemp will maintain its Kentucky facility. The new Middlebury facility will likely employ up to 10 workers within the next three- to five years, according to Rosen.
Hemp plants are already being grown in New York, Maine and Vermont, so the Middlebury plant will have relatively easy access to that inventory.
Rosen is working with the Vermont Hemp Company to find farmers willing to grow the crop. At this point, the company has “a few hundred acres” and more than five Vermont farmers under contract to supply hemp seeds. He anticipates some of the supply will come from Addison County. Victory Hemp will source its raw materials from throughout the country.
“A lot of the challenge for farmers is getting their products to market,” he said. “An essential part of any agricultural system is having a processor and marketer in place.”
Victory Hemp places a premium on pristine land suitable for organic crops. Rosen explained that hemp plants can absorb and pull a lot of things out of the soil — including heavy metals and chemicals.
“You really want to make sure that when you’re growing hemp, you’re growing it in clean fields that haven’t been exposed to heavy metals,” Rosen said. “There are a lot of those clean, pristine fields we’ve identified (in the Northeast).”
And Rosen realizes that Vermont has become synonymous with “clean” and “pristine.” It’s a reputation that many businesses have sought to associate with their products.
“Vermont stands for quality, it stands for transparency in the mind’s eye of the consumer, and we’re excited to become a part of that great story,” Rosen said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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