Oak City Cannabis: Industrial Hemp, By Hand

By Marc Lewis
Davide Ragusa, Unsplash

Pass the car dealerships north of town and drive for half an hour. Exit the highway into fields of tobacco and corn. See churches, the occasional gas station with a regular smoking out front. Come to a neighborhood, seemingly the last for a while before the mailman is able to get up to speed between stops, and down a gravel road you’ll enter a plot of orange Granville County dirt lined with cannabis plants. Tim McChesney owns the place. He lives in a cabin between his two fields.

When he bought the land from the people who had inherited it a family dispute had taken a toll on the fields, they’d grown over, so McChesney had to cut his way in, carve the farm out from scratch. It was a difficult start but a worthy prequel to what stands now: an industrial hemp operation done by hand.

McChesney studied hemp cultivation in Colorado, but farming was always a part of his life. Plant science brought his family to North Carolina when his grandfather got a job at N.C. State. A couple generations later, McChesney is an hour from that campus and one of the first people in the state licensed to grow hemp. He grows it for medicine—tinctures, pre-rolls. Even makes a butter that his mom puts on toast to help with her aches.

Farmers like McChesney were licensed in late 2017 and started their crops in the dead of summer. When a group of hemp farmers got together to talk about how the first year went, McChesney remembers the speaker asking those in attendance who all had filled out applications. About fifty hands went up. Then the speaker asked that those who were successful in getting crops in the ground keep their hands up. About ten stayed up. Then the speaker asked who among the remaining hands had a successful crop, who among the hopeful had harvested hemp into product. “Three hands were up,” McChesney said, proud to have made it to year two.

McChesney even watered by hand the first year, drove a truck through the field with a tank in back. He built his irrigation system this year. He dug a pond at a natural cold spring near the gate and ran lines through the woods and under the road to keep the water cool. Only the story of small farms seems to be one step forward, one irony from above. An irrigation system built is a rain dance answered and Oak City Cannabis has had plenty of rain since the system went in.

Farming hemp is hard if you have a corporation behind you, repurposed tobacco equipment and the infrastructure of an established farm at your back. It’s harder when it’s you and the occasional friend. But demand is high. Enough for the second field, enough to hold back product at an event in Raleigh to save some for other commitments.

Next month McChesney will speak to the next generation of hemp farmers at North Carolina A&T. He likes the school for the attention it pays smaller scale farms and the farmers who run them. Different, he thinks, from the larger schools where precision ag is the sport of choice. “We’re growing medicine here,” he says, talking about the institutions and personalities involved, as if a thing done for good should be done on a personal scale, by and for people.

Regardless of who is leading—universities, businesses, farmers—a new conversation is starting. “I had the local DEA agent down to show him what we’re doing,” McChesney says. “I talked to all the neighbors so they knew what was going on. They look out for us.”

A little different than how the old guys down the road did it, those kindred spirits who are now learning tough lessons alongside McChesney as their once-private projects move into the open, out in the weather, into the tricky soil that holds water so well.

But this is the life McChesney had in mind when he applied to grow industrial hemp. He imagined his own piece of land where he could practice what he learned out West and carry on a family tradition. Oak City Cannabis is two fields, lessons learned, and a lawnmower that acts up. It’s hard work and the help of friends—industrial hemp by hand.

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