Here’s an almost forgotten fact: Henry Ford spent a lot of time and money during the 1930s building a car entirely of plastics derived from hemp. He refined hemp biofuel to fuel it just to demonstrate it could be done.
Plastics were very new then. Ford, who grew up on a farm, thought American farmers ought to supply the raw material for plastics, but other interests saw it differently. The Reefer Madness propaganda generally blamed for cannabis prohibition also eliminated hemp as a potential alternative to oil for the nascent petrochemical industry, as well as a substitute for cotton and a new source material for paper. If that was the intent, it succeeded. Two years after it became legal to again grow industrial hemp, HempWood in Murray, Kentucky, is the only business buying domestically grown hemp to process into a product that is not medicinal or cosmetic.
“We are the only scaled hemp fiber producer of hemp building materials in the United States. From what I’ve heard, we are the only scaled producer of any hemp fiber product in the US,’’ said Greg Wilson, founder and CEO of HempWood.
There was no reply to an email inquiry to the Hemp Industries Association to check if other manufacturers buy and process domestic hemp.
Prohibition stigma lingers
Say “hemp” and lots of people think “marijuana.”
“The number one question we get is what happens when a building catches fire and your (hemp) flooring is in there?” Wilson said. “Will the firefighters be able to perform their task high? I get asked that five times a day.”
The answer is no, burning hemp wood flooring won’t get firefighters, or anyone else, high. Hemp is the straight laced, virtually THC-free cousin of is sold in legal cannabis dispensaries. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which legalized hemp farming, restricts the plants to .03 percent THC. Cannabis sold in legal dispensaries ranges from 10 percent THC to well over 20 percent.
The legalization of hemp was the culmination of a 20-year quest by Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who millions of Americans wish would just smoke a joint and chill the hell out) to give tobacco farmers a new cash crop. While there is a growing market for hemp products such as CBD, cosmetics and wellness products, the renewable hemp fiber industrial economy Henry Ford demonstrated is possible remains a long way off. Hemp is legal to grow, but there are few customers for hemp fiber.
Which is where Wilson comes in. His expertise is engineered wood. He wrote a manufacturing algorithm for converting fast growing fibrous plants into wood with the characteristics of expensive hardwoods while a college undergraduate in Maryland. He received his MBA from Zhejiang University, a prestigious school in China’s Hangzhou province. Following graduation he went into the bamboo wood industry in China, with frequent business travel to the US and Australia.
“I had feet-on-the-ground in China for 11 of the last 16 years,” Wilson said. “My Chinese is good enough to argue with my mother-in-law. My wife and I primarily speak Chinese at home.”
A rough ride since launching the company
Wilson and his wife, Bing Bai, began splitting their time between China and the US in 2016. Sensing an opportunity with the legalization of hemp farming in the US, Wilson and Bing Bai settled in his native Maryland in 2018. Wilson spent months in his basement adjusting his algorithm to manufacture a hardwood from hemp. When he perfected the process he founded Fibonacci LLC, DBA as HempWood (simply calling the company HempWood just invites bureaucratic scrutiny when none is merited) in Maryland but moved the company to Murray, Kentucky, to be near the Center for Agricultural Hemp at Murray State University.
A long list of Kentucky dignitaries and politicians attended the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new HempWood plant in late August 2019. The facility has received consistent support from the university, and the jobs are welcome in the town where a major employer, Briggs & Stratton, is shutting down. Kentucky hemp farmers need reliable industrial customers like HempWood.
As encouraging as that sounds, the reality has been rough. It’s as though the federal government is trying to keep hemp as close to illegal it can. “The problem is the government,” Wilson said. “I have seven agencies that are tracking me or requiring me to file paperwork. That takes up an enormous amount of my time. The FBI checks my background every year. I make wood and the government treats me like a drug runner.”
Putting his factory together required importing some expensive machinery. HempWood was granted an exemption from the stiff tariff but the pandemic delayed shipment and the machinery arrived nine days after the exemption expired. Wilson first learned he would have to pay the tariff when he saw $51,000 had been removed from his bank account by US Customs and Border Protection. That hammered the company finances and he had to take a loan against his house and borrow from an investor to meet payroll.
“That hurt,” Wilson said. “The red tape around these programs makes me throw up in my mouth once in a while.” A supportive member of Congress is advocating for a refund but Wilson hasn’t received any money and isn’t optimistic he will.
Pandemic makes everything harder
Wilson has also endured all the normal setbacks that come with launching a business. High turnover on the factory floor is a constant headache. Only four of his 14 original hires are still with the company. He’s laid himself off twice to meet payroll.
The pandemic has made it even tougher. “I’ve been traveling the US for 10 weeks,” Wilson said. “Every place is strange. There is no pre-COVID normal anywhere.” The likeliest projects for hemp wood, like resorts or office complexes that want credit for using sustainable products, are largely on hold. The architects and interior designers for high-end commercial projects who he would normally be contacting to show product samples and make his pitch are all working from home.
The one big exception is cannabis dispensaries. “They are still building,” Wilson said.
Despite it all, Wilson is doggedly traveling, often with Bing Bai driving, to meet every customer he can. The factory is producing steadily. He is in discussions to build a second factory in Oregon.
“I can’t change pandemics, civil unrest, forest fires, and elections, but everything we can control we are doing according to plan,” Wilson said. “I won’t quit.”