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Shawn Dezern with hemp growing in the field
(Founders Hemp photo)

Listen to Bob Crumley for any amount of time and you’ll notice that a few words keep cropping up in his patter, words like sustainability, zero-waste and quality control. He uses them a lot when speaking about his current passion — hemp.

Crumley is the owner of Founders Hemp and an Asheboro attorney who may just be the perfect person to shepherd a once-disgraced, agricultural product back into local, state and national prominence. Crumley named his production company in honor of America’s founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom raised hemp to make ropes.

Crumley has a unique blend of skills. He is a successful attorney who established Crumley & Associates law firm (now Crumley Roberts) in 1989. He is a real estate developer and exceedingly familiar with the legislative process, frequently traveling to Raleigh to consult on legislative endeavors.

Today, Crumley is at the center of a hemp operation that even he says is expanding almost faster than he can keep up with. He is using all of his skill sets — from business to legislative to legal — to keep the industry on track and successful in North Carolina.

From the point in time when he opened a retail shop selling hemp products in Asheboro in 2017 and contracted the first land to grow a hemp crop, Crumley is now overseeing packaging and processing of the very product he sells. In November 2018, he opened “the most sophisticated growing room in North Carolina” for growing of hemp sets for the field.

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It’s been a long road. Crumley spent years working to legalize the industrial crop, which up until 2017 had not been grown in North Carolina since 1937. He traces his interest in hemp to three friends who died of cancer — Bill Boyd, “Poochie” Cox and Vickie Burgess. Crumley began looking into ways to prevent and treat cancer. That’s when he came across the benefits of hemp or specifically cannabidiol oil (CBD). The oil is being researched as a possible substance to slow the growth of some cancer tumors.

Crumley founded the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, which he still chairs, to lobby to change laws prohibiting the growing and use of hemp in the state. In September 2015, the new law passed the state legislature, authorizing an industrial hemp pilot program. The U.S. Congress finally got on board in December 2018 with the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act.

Crumley says this will be a real boon to the industry. In addition to approving hemp as a legal crop, the Hemp Farming Act took away any restrictions that would keep banks from making loans to hemp farmers, gave them access to water rights, provided funding for hemp research and set legal guidelines for government entities.

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Crumley’s various hemp business endeavors are held under the umbrella of CF Properties LLC. The company is a classic example of vertical integration. Vertical integration is when a company controls the supply chain from manufacturing to end sales.

Crumley started out with a test plot and a retail operation. Waylon Saunders is Crumley’s director of farm operations. He grew the company’s first large test plot of hemp in 2017 on his family’s farm near Asheboro. In 2018, the operation pulled in five acres of hemp plants. 2019 will mark the third season of hemp production at the farm. Crumley also contracts with other farms across the state to grow additional inventory.

Founders Hemp opened its first retail store, Everything Hemp, at 405 E. Dixie Drive, in 2017 as well. As of February 2019, there were six stores in operation in North Carolina with 16 more planned to open this year.

All carry hemp-derived items such as apparel, home items, curtains and bath towels. Hemp seeds are sold as a healthy snack. The stores also carry protein bars, snacks and nutraceuticals, from tinctures to oils to smokable flower buds.

As the first full crop of hemp matured in the fields in 2018, Crumley prepared for it by building a processing facility in Asheboro that opened in May of that year. Crumley estimates he has invested $1 million into the building construction and roughly as much in the equipment. The building has been constructed to meet food-grade requirements. Inside the facility, staff take hemp from the fieldand extract the precious CBD oil. It is then processed into the tinctures, oils and food products available for sale in the retail store.

With the opening of a commercial indoor greenhouse operation in November 2018, Crumley completed the next step on his vertically integrated operation. Why go to the extraordinary cost of growing yourown plants?

“I can’t go to the commodity market and buy hemp plants. We made the strategic decision early on to control the source and supply of our product,” Crumley says.

The growing operations are overseen by Shawn Dezern, the company’s clone expert. It is a shiny, insulated, silvery wonder complete with hepa airfilters, ultraviolet lights to help kill bacteria and mold, a closed water system and controlled conditions requiring workers to wear protective booties,gloves and lab coats.

In a former manufacturing facility, Dezern monitors 1,200 square feet of climate-controlled growing area filled with “mother plants.” Another room houses the new cuttings. They live there, developing root systems and growing stronger until it’s time to head to the fields.

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Along the way to establishing a cutting-edge hemp operation in Randolph County, Crumley has insisted on bringing others in the county in on his vision. When he needed specialized equipment to package seeds, he turned to Randolph Community College where Steve Maness and his students helped to design an adaption for a packaging machine that allowed workers to more easily pump seeds into food packets.

One of the most popular food items in Everything Hemp is hemp honey sticks. Crumley said he made it a point to use Randolph County honey to make them.

In his ongoing pursuit of making his hemp operation 100 percent sustainable, Crumley offered some spent hemp material to local beer brewery, Four Saints Brewing in Asheboro. Four Saints co-founders, Joel McCloskey and Andrew Deming, used it create a seasonal brew called Founding Fathers Hemp Ale, a dark, English mild ale.

Since starting on this project, he has made major investments in over 67,000 square feet of buildings in Asheboro devoted to hemp processing, production and storage with a growing staff that currently numbers around 44.

The potential for more growth is there, he believes. And there is no reason why it can’t happen right here in Randolph County.