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Natural Resources

Tim Van Epps

Tim Van Epps with some of the ‘mother plants’ growing indoors at Heritage CBD’s Northampton facility.

Tim Van Epps volunteers with an organization called Fairways for Freedom, which helps combat-injured vets assimilate back into society through holistic initiatives and golf, teaching them the game and sponsoring trips to great courses around the world.

That’s where Van Epps, president of the Sandri Companies, first saw the benefits of cannabidoil, or CBD, a chemical compound made from the hemp part of the cannabis plant.

“I saw veterans who were taking 30 different pills a day, and a lot of these veterans are just using CBD now, and that’s it,” he told BusinessWest. “I saw 25 guys who were doctor-prescribed drug addicts, and now they’re on CBD, and their lives have changed dramatically. I saw what this could do. I saw what it did for one of my older brother’s sons, and for folks with stage-4 cancer. I’ve watched with my own two eyes what it’s done for a lot of people who had a lot of problems.”

He’s done much more than observe, however, launching a company called Heritage CBD almost three years ago with Sarah McLaughlin, a nutritionist and registered sports dietitian who had built a whole-foods company called Sun Valley Bars, sold it to Nature’s Bounty, and was looking for a new challenge in the natural-products world.

“We took the idea to start a hemp/CBD company in the carriage house on my property,” Van Epps said, and soon after moved to a 17,000-square-foot property on nearby Industrial Drive in Northampton, where the company now works with well over a dozen farms that grow hemp, which is processed into a mulch-like substance called biomass, then processed into the line of oils, lotions, tinctures, gummies, and other products Heritage sells today.

“We wanted to do everything, soup to nuts — or seed to sale,” he explained, but emphasized the company’s relationship with local farmers as a critical component to his vision.

Heritage CBD founders

From left, Heritage CBD founders Tim Van Epps and Sarah McLaughlin and President Jake Goodyear.

“Many have been hurt financially over the past 10 years, and for many, the next generation doesn’t want to go into the business, so farms out here are struggling,” he said. “We saw hemp as a value-added cash crop we could introduce to the farming community. This was all about jobs, first and foremost — creating jobs in Western Massachusetts.”

Michael Lupario’s vision was multi-faceted as well. With a degree in environmental science from UMass Amherst, he’s long been passionate about soil sciences and promoting cleaner, more sustainable ways to farm.

Meanwhile, his interest in plant-based medicine goes back to high school, when he learned to forage medicinal plants and experimented with making teas and oils. As president of Western MA Hemp, he now combines his desire to farm with the opportunity to bring plant-based medicine to a broader audience.

“My company’s focus has always been intertwining cannabis back to the larger pharmacopia that is herbal medicine — to not only show the efficacy of cannabis, but get back to this broader realm of plant-based healing,” Lupario explained. “There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

Like Van Epps, he’s seen plenty of people use CBD to relieve pain, anxiety, restlessness, and other conditions — some of the same issues for which medicinal marijuana is often used, but without the psychoactive ingredient THC (the stuff that gets users high), which is present in only the barest sense in CBD.

“I find a certain set of consumers are looking for that psychoactive side; that’s appealing for them. For others, it deters them from cannabis. Some can integrate it into their lifestyle with no problems, but others may be drug-tested on the job.”

Michael Lupario

Michael Lupario

Whether seeking out marijuana or CBD for chronic injuries or any number of other conditions, in many cases, “conventional medicine is not working, and they’re looking for something new — they’re willing to try anything,” Lupario said. “They just want to feel better.”

While providing products that many customers swear by — although the products themselves, because they’re not FDA-approved, are not allowed to make specific medical claims — companies like Heritage CBD and Western MA Hemp have set down roots (literally and figuratively) in a field that’s still rapidly changing, in ways both regulatory and otherwise.

 

Overcoming the Stigma

Jake Goodyear, who ran the Renewable Energy division at Sandri before moving into the role of Heritage CBD president, said it wasn’t initially a move he wanted to make.

“I was a skeptic,” he told BusinessWest. “I’d been brainwashed into the stigma around cannabis and marijuana. It took me a while just to get my head around the history of the plant — and then I got mad that my point of view was so twisted on this subject because of what I had been told my whole life. When I got over that, I realized there was a huge opportunity here, and there really was nothing negative about hemp and CBD, and there are a lot of positives.”

One of the first challenges was regulatory, as the federal government still listed hemp and CBD as a Schedule 1 drug, so Heritage was unable to access a bank account or merchant services for credit-card payments. That changed with the 2018 Farm Bill, though THC-rich cannabis remains federally illegal as a Schedule 1 drug. Still, the state has offered its own unique series of barriers.

“Massachusetts policy gave us a license to grow hemp and process it into specific products like tinctures and gummies and soft-gel capsules,” Goodyear said, “but there was no regulatory pathway to sell them to market.”

For that reason, product sales at both Heritage and Western MA Hemp are largely online. Both companies emphasize multiple layers of third-party testing to ensure the products are clean, free of pesticides and toxins, and contain the ratios of ingredients they claim.

“I had a cannabis background — I was a fan of cannabis, both medical and recreational; it helped me a lot,” said Lupario, who launched his business a couple years ago with mentor and arborist Jim Sweeney. “He took me under his wing and provided some finances to allow me to put to use what skills and knowledge I had.”

The company also wholesales hemp flower and biomass to various processors for industrial uses; in fact, that’s the more lucrative side of the business while Lupario continues to grow his line of wellness products.

“It takes time to build a brand. We knew we wouldn’t be able to make our operating costs with what we made from these products … so what we don’t use in our products goes into the wholesale line,” he explained. “Because we grow our own material, we can keep margins down, have competitive pricing, and still create a really high-grade product.”

Trays of CBD-infused gummies

Trays of CBD-infused gummies are ready for packaging at the Heritage plant.

On a similar note, on a tour of the Heritage plant, Van Epps paused in the room where gummies are being infused with CBD to point out a rack of the gummy substance in bulk sizes without any CBD, which Heritage sells to cannabis companies that infuse it with THC, which he is legally unable to handle.

“Right now, this is what pays the bills, our bulk formulation,” he said. “We could morph into a candy company.”

McLaughlin said she brings a strong science background to her work at Heritage, citing the six different tests — checking for everything from pesticides to potency — each product has to pass along the production journey. “We wanted everything evidence-based. We really came at this trying to make the highest-quality product possible.

“It seems like a bit of a stretch from being a dietitian, but if you think about what a dietitian does, we study the effects of what you consume and how it affects your body, and this is no different,” she went on. “I saw all the potential and all the different areas CBD could help. And since we started, more and more research has come out about the positive effects of CBD. It’s exciting work, with incredible potential to help people.”

Van Epps said a growing public awareness about the benefits of CBD helps boost sales, but competition is fierce, too. “There are so many brands. What brands do you trust? We’re seeing lot of inferior brands that tried to get rich quick fall by the wayside.”

The key for Heritage, he added, is to stand out with quality products that are tested in transparent ways.

“We had a blank slate at first,” McLaughin said. “Anything known about formulating came from the black market, and you almost had to scrap it all and start over and understand there was most likely a better way of doing it.”

 

Altered States

More industry standardization would be another ‘better way’ to do business, said all those we spoke with. For instance, while Massachusetts limits THC levels in CBD to 0.3%, Vermont allows 1%. “In a perfect world, you’d standardize the rules across the country,” Van Epps said.

Added Lupario, “you’ve got to be able to pivot and deal with all the upheaval of laws and everything that comes with the ever-changing dynamics of the agriculture industry. You’re going to see that for the next couple of years until it settles down a bit; that will come with more federal oversight. We’re getting there.”

Van Epps said it’s been a tough year for some in the hemp industry, especially for farms that planted too much, too soon. “They thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme, and unfortunately, a lot of farmers got hurt by that. Farmers who didn’t bite off more than they could chew will tell you it’s a good business, worth investing in, and they see long-term growth. It’s exciting.”

Goodyear said less than 25% of American adults have tried a CBD product, so there’s plenty of room for growth; in fact, he sees the potential for Heritage to expand from about 20 employee today to 150 in a couple of years.

The trend toward greater public awareness is certainly good for business, Lupario said, but it also boosts his mission to give cannabis and hemp a stronger connection to natural, plant-based wellness.

“It’s another plant within the herbal pharmacopeia,” he said — one whose story continues to blossom in Massachusetts and beyond.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Growing a Job Market

By Mark Morris

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center was developed to train people for the hundreds of jobs being created in the industry locally.

When a new industry in Massachusetts reaches $1 billion in sales in only four years, it certainly gets people’s attention.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently announced that, four years after legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, and only two years after the first retail shops opened, this relatively new industry surpassed that $1 billion mark on Oct. 30.

“There are a lot of jobs that go along with a billion dollars in industry activity,” said Jeff Hayden, vice president for Business and Community Services at the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

Shortly after cannabis was legalized in the state, Hayden spoke with advocacy groups and business leaders in the industry, which led to establishing the Cannabis Education Center at HCC to provide training for in-demand occupations in the burgeoning industry.

“Our focus wasn’t on the product itself; we wanted to identify the occupations that make the most sense so we can train people for those jobs,” Hayden said.

After completing a core course to familiarize students with the cannabis industry, more concentrated training is available in four career tracks:

• Patient-service associates work behind the counter at a cannabis dispensary, interact with the public, answer technical questions, and provide information to registered cannabis patients, as well as recreational customers;

• Culinary assistants prepare cannabis-infused products such as gummy candies and baked goods infused with cannabis;

• Extraction technicians work in a lab assisting production managers in extraction, purging, oil manipulation, and quality control of cannabis products; and

• Cultivation assistants provide daily care of the crops from seed to harvest.

“Because HCC offers courses in business and customer service, culinary, chemistry, and agriculture, the career tracks for cannabis training line up well with the expertise the college already has,” said Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, who worked with instructors to set up the cannabis course offerings.

As a community college, HCC doesn’t allow cannabis or associated products on campus. That means classroom instruction might involve using computer simulations to show chemical reactions, for example. When a physical demonstration is needed, legally approved items like hemp plants are used in class.

“While we will not have cannabis or related products on campus, we will still do the job education has always done: share with our students the best knowledge we can provide and the best examples,” Hayden said, noting that students can get actual hands-on experience when they land internships or get placed in a job.

He added that the courses are designed to provide an entry-level workforce for the cannabis industry. Wages are usually comparable and sometimes slightly higher than other industries at entry level.

“Even more important than landing that first job is the ability to make a career out of cannabis, because the levels of compensation can be significant,” he told BusinessWest.

Whether a person is looking for an entry-level job or a second career, Cabral said cannabis can be a “phenomenal career track” for people who have never considered it before.

For example, someone with a sales background could train as a patient-services associate training to build on the skills they already have. Or someone with a science background and wants to work in a lab could train as an extraction technician to learn about cannabis-infused products such as skin creams and shampoos.

“This person with science and lab training would find an entire industry that is exploding, where they could have an amazing career,” she said. “Who knows? They could come in at entry level and work their way up to be the head of the lab.”

There’s much more to the industry than rolling a joint, Cabral continued, noting that cannabis-infused shampoos and skin creams are only two examples of the many different items that appeal to the general public. “These products are extremely clean, closely regulated, and environmentally sustainable. It’s not just about getting high.”

 

Elevating an Industry

Elevate Northeast, a nonprofit workforce-training and cannabis-advocacy group has partnered with HCC on career-training programs at the Cannabis Education Center.

Beth Waterfall, founder and executive director of Elevate Northeast, said the program at HCC is designed to help people become familiar and comfortable with the industry. “The coursework helps people see that this is real. There’s a place for their interests and their skills.”

Elevate Northeast’s main mission is to provide opportunities for people who have been marginalized or were disproportionately harmed by previous marijuana prohibitions. The CCC administers a Social Equity Program to provide assistance and training to encourage those impacted by the ‘war on drugs’ to pursue careers as workers or entrepreneurs in the cannabis field.

Waterfall said righting past wrongs is one of the mandates of the CCC. The Certified Economic Empowerment application process is a way to encourage people from neighborhoods and communities that suffered from the impact of the war on drugs to seek licenses to open cannabis microbusinesses. She added that establishing microbusinesses also prevents larger companies from dominating the cannabis market.

“I’m excited about the cannabis industry because, through programs like social equity and economic empowerment, Massachusetts has an opportunity to be a leader in business ownership by people of color and women,” she said.

Waterfall called HCC’s Cannabis Education Center a “wonderful” way to provide people with both an initial exposure and a deep dive into the cannabis industry, as well as helping people understand how they may fit into it. “Who knows? This exposure may encourage them to someday own their own business.”

While retail cannabis operations have launched in many Western Mass. communities, the city of Holyoke has been most active, currently boasting four dispensaries, with at least two more scheduled to open in 2021. Based on workplace needs identified by these companies, the job market for cannabis looks to be healthy through 2021.

“By rough estimate, I anticipate, within the coming year, we will have 400 to 500 workers in the cannabis industry, just in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Because Western Mass. offers both skilled workers and cheaper land compared to the eastern part of the state, Waterfall sees real growth potential and cited Holyoke as quickly becoming a center of cannabis commerce. “The city needed innovation and needed jobs. Cannabis is doing that very effectively in Holyoke.”

Such strong demand for talent would normally be an opportunity for career centers like MassHire to be involved. That’s not the case, however; David Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, noted that his organization receives most of its funding from the federal government, which has not recognized cannabis as a legal substance.

“Until laws change at the federal level, we cannot be actively engaged in getting involved with job seekers in the cannabis industry,” Cruise said. While he is aware of the increase in local job opportunities in the industry, MassHire will be taking a hands-off approach to cannabis employment.

That presents a stark opportunity for HCC’s programs. In her conversations with cannabis-industry employers, Cabral found they are looking for workers who represent the diversity of their customers. One dispensary owner said clients can range from a 40-year-old woman craving a good night’s sleep to a younger person looking for a recreational product.

“The people who use the products are as diverse as the population in general, so that’s who we want to train, and that’s who the employers want to hire,” she said.

During training, Cabral reminds her students that success means following basics like showing up on time with a good attitude, effectively communicating with the management team, and putting their cell phones away. “These are real careers in real businesses that are trying to make money, so come ready to work.”

Hayden echoes that point and noted that, while it’s not surprising for someone who has an interest in cannabis to work in the industry, employers will expect them to put in an honest effort and have an open mind to learn more and grow. He also advised they pay attention to the little things that can make a big difference.

“One employer told me, he chooses his customer-service people by whether or not they walk into the room with a smile.”

 

Cultivating an Ecosystem

While the cannabis industry offers many career pathways, Hayden said it’s easy to forget about all the traditional back-of-house functions such as accounting, marketing, and data analytics that companies need on top of the industry-specific positions.

While it’s called the cannabis industry, Waterfall added, it’s really more of an ecosystem that encourages people to bring their diverse skills to it.

“While I run a nonprofit, I pay my bills by consulting with cannabis companies on marketing communications and business development,” she said, noting that she started out doing similar work, except her clients were lawyers and accounting firms.

While COVID-19 has made it difficult to get a clear sense of job growth, Hayden said the industry is just getting off the ground and still promises a strong growth trajectory.

“Like any industry, there will be ups and downs,” he added, “but the projections post-COVID are suggesting we could hit a billion dollars a year in a short period of time.”

That kind of success helps overcome some of the stigma of cannabis use, which Waterfall admits can be very strong, whether coming from family or community. While she has been educating her own family, some are still not comfortable with cannabis use.

“Then I hear from someone who tried an infused gummy and has never slept so well, or the person who told me she drinks a CBD tincture in the morning, and it makes her a better mom.”

Anecdotes like those help debunk the stereotypes and stigmas about who uses cannabis, and why. Cabral hopes more people come to understand this is a serious industry with products that can be helpful to a wide range of customers. As such, cannabis needs a committed workforce that also takes itself seriously and moves past old stereotypes.

“Jobs in this field can be extremely technical,” she said. “It’s not just go listen to Bob Marley and have a party.”