Retired S. Daytona city manager learns hard lesson in the dirt
| The Daytona Beach News-Journal
It’s one thing to think you’re getting in on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry.
Something else entirely to find yourself down in the black dirt, practically straddling the Alabama-Mississippi line, planting more than 1,000 seedlings you only “hope” might become a cash crop.
“I thought I was gonna be something like a ‘gentleman farmer,’ but that wasn’t the deal,” says Joe Yarbrough.
More than a year later, he can show you knees still stained from the charms of an area known as the Black Belt Prairie. The stuff doesn’t just come out in the wash.
“My partner’s mother told me once, ‘Joe, if you stick with this prairie in the summer, it’ll stick with you all winter.’ She was right.”
Joe Yarbrough, at 68 and after 33 years as South Daytona’s city manager, went along with an idea from an old friend, Harley Martin, who planted a rhetorical seed that grew into actual hemp plants. From those plants they eventually produced a line of products in the growing world of CBD, which, they often have to point out, is only related to marijuana in the way horses are related to zebras.
The Martin & Yarbrough Hemp Company went from the oldest and crudest form of industry (“I sure have mastered the post-hole digger,” Yarbrough says) to the most modern (AlabamaHempProducts.com is the website) as their five CBD products made it to the retail world early this year, both online and in some Alabama stores and salons.
They offer hand soap, oil droppers for both humans and pets, a roller applicator designed for headache relief, and a salve for joint and muscle aches.
Between the early toiling and current marketing, there were chemistry lessons, lots of interstate time, and even a trip to the University of Kentucky’s “Hemp College.”
It’s not marijuana
Hemp and marijuana are terms that evolved over the years to differentiate two plants from the cannabis family that look alike but have very different DNA. Marijuana plants contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main ingredient that creates a high through smoking marijuana or downing edibles.
Hemp’s active ingredient is cannabidiol (CBD), and to meet legal standards, hemp plants must contain less than 0.3% (three-tenths of one percent) of THC. That restriction was written into the 2018 United States Farm Bill, which officially legalized large-scale hemp farming.
CBD has become widely available in recent years as a supplement. Results obviously vary from person to person, but according to Harvard Health Publishing, “CBD may prove to be an option for managing anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.”
The CBD/THC dividing line between hemp and marijuana led to the most mentally stressful moments of Yarbrough’s new venture. As harvest neared, inspectors from Alabama’s Department of Agriculture took samples from the crop to make sure the level of THC was less than 0.3%. The price of a bad reading couldn’t be steeper.
“If we’re over three-tenths of a percent,” Yarbrough says, “the state will schedule a visit to witness us destroying our crop.”
Retirement plan evolved
Yarbrough retired in early 2019 after 33 years as city manager in South Daytona — 45 years overall, counting two previous cities. Everyone who knew him wondered how retirement would work for a high-energy sort like Yarbrough.
Along with the demands of his South Daytona job, for 20 years he spent his weekends operating a fishing charter business. He quit that about 10 years ago and sold his charter boat — “it’s a funny feeling watching your boat leave with someone else driving it, but it was all right,” he says.
“Joe has to have something to do or he wears out one shoe walking around in circles,” says former South Daytona councilman George Locke. “He’s been a super good friend for a long time and I wish him well with what he’s doing, because he did a fantastic job with the city.”
Yarbrough, after decades of Monday-through-Friday planning, had only one retirement plan, and it wasn’t exactly ambitious.
“All the books say have a plan when you retire,” he says. “My plan was basically what I didn’t want to do. I did not want to go in another public building or another public meeting for a very long time. I know I’m too hyperactive and had to do something, but the hemp farm was something I evolved into, didn’t plan.”
Around the time of Yarbrough’s retirement, Martin approached him with a stack of papers and suggested hemp farming might be in their future. All he wanted from Yarbrough, at least at first, was help navigating the paperwork necessary to obtain “growing and processing” permits from the state of Alabama in order to legally grow hemp.
“He convinced me we’d be starting at the ground level of a profitable product,” Yarbrough says. “By May of 2019, Harley held a license to grow hemp.”
Soon thereafter was the required visit to the University of Kentucky for Hemp College, a seminar featuring one farmer after another offering advice to a roomful of fellow farmers interested in the growing hemp industry.
“The panelists were real hemp farmers and they all agreed that growing the hemp was more laborious than any other crops and that it was anything but a ‘weed,’ ” Yarbrough says.
Hard work begins
The labor warnings rang true. First, the new hemp partners drove a horse trailer to White Springs, Tennessee, where they loaded 1,050 hemp clones in quart pots that barely fit inside the trailer.
“A tornado followed us to the Alabama line, and at 3 a.m. we made it to the farm,” Yarbrough recalls of that long day.
The farm is located 15 miles outside the nearest tiny town, Aliceville. The morning after bringing the plants to the farm, Martin and Yarbrough went in to Aliceville to hire a few day-workers to help unload the plants and place them in a greenhouse. That’s when Martin engineered a ploy that, over a year later, still has Yarbrough shaking his head in admiration.
“Before we started, Harley gives each of the workers a plastic bag and tells them they can fill the bag with any of the leaves that fall off the plants while unloading the trailer,” Yarbrough says.
The workers, not likely schooled on the differences between marijuana and hemp, readily obliged.
“Jaws dropped when the trailer doors were opened,” Yarbrough says.
“There was a lot of method to Harley’s madness. Everyone knew just about everyone in Aliceville. If word got out that Harley was growing ‘pot,’ the field would be a target for night thieves, and if any of the helpers asked for more leaves later, we would know that our crop had a problem with THC levels.
“In appearance, hemp and marijuana plants are identical to the untrained eye and it’s still a stigma to many that simply don’t understand the difference. In the end, none of the farm help ever asked for any more plants or leaves from that point on.”
‘There’s nothing light on a farm’
Yarbrough, a Tennessee native with the accent to prove it, says his farming history began and ended with family gardens. This hemp venture has taught him more than he ever wanted to know about a farm.
During the three-month growing of the crop, he would make the 10-hour drive to western Alabama every other week go get down and dirty with the growing process.
“Every morning at daybreak I would drive to Aliceville, pick up two or three field helpers and hit the field until 5 or 6 that afternoon,” he says. “Apart from the gas-powered pump and weed eater, all work was done with hand tools.
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing light on a farm. Nothing. After a while, even a rake feels heavy. But I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.”
Martin laughs while recalling Yarbrough’s introduction to farming, as well as the over-eager methods that are a byproduct of his energy level.
“It was wonderful watching him go out there in his Bermuda shorts and do all that work,” says Martin, whose 3,000-acre farm mostly produces hay, beef cattle and timber. “Joe’s main thing is, he thinks he needs to do everything.
“I’d laugh at him and tell him, ‘I’ll get you all the help you need, but you have to know how to make other people work. These guys standing there watching you do the work, they don’t mind watching you all day.”
Yarbrough would discover it’s more than planting and watering and waiting. As the two acres of plants grew, stakes were needed to keep them from tilting to the ground due to hard summer storms. Weevils found the crop by late summer and a milk-based organic pesticide was frequently hand-sprayed on each plant.
Then the deer came, necessitating the moving of dogs and dog houses into the field, where they’d be relocated weekly.
“The dogs kept the deer at bay, but it was another chore to provide water and food twice a day for the dogs,” Yarbrough says.
By the end of last September, with many of the plants topping six feet, harvest was fast approaching and the Department of Agriculture ran its tests. After a “long week” of waiting, the test results came back under the THC threshold and it was time to chop down the plants and hang them upside-down in a barn for a two-month process of drying.
Finally, each plant was held over a container and hand-shucked of its blossoms. After that, a chemist was hired to turn the biomass into crude oil, which was then mixed with other ingredients to make the final products.
Yarbrough says they got enough crude to carry them through this first year of retail and didn’t plant another crop this year. A potential 2021 crop depends on product demand, he says, noting the good news/bad news potential with a laugh.
“Yeah, if we sell a lot of the product, the whole process starts over again next year,” he says. “It’s back to the ‘killing fields.’ ”