An International Falls couple this year started a business unique to Koochiching County, and report big plans for the future.

Erik and Hailey Silvers started Grindstone Farms, located east of International Falls. The new greenhouse this summer wasn't full of plants typically seen in the area, instead it was home to about 400 hemp plants, before it was harvested earlier this fall.

“(The effort) is exciting,” Hailey said. “This was something we'd been thinking about for years and years, and the opportunity presented itself this year.”

Earlier this year, Erik was one of 542 Minnesotans approved for a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Hemp Pilot License. The program is an agricultural research program for hemp, which is a commodity that can be used for numerous industrial and horticultural purposes including fabric, paper, construction materials, food products, cosmetics, production of cannabinoids (such as cannabidiol or CBD), and other products, according to federalregister.gov.

The idea to start growing hemp plants didn't cultivate overnight; the couple has been considering growing hemp for about 10 years. Recent legislation, opened the doors to explore the opportunity in Minnesota.

“There was a time we considered going somewhere else to do this,” Hailey said. “We didn't know if we'd be able to in Minnesota.”

Growing and learning

With state programs in place, Erik spent the last handful of years researching the many benefits of hemp farming, coordinating with friends in the industry and attending conferences. Late last year, he traveled to hemp conferences in St. Cloud and Las Vegas, gathering information and preparing for the next step in the business venture.

“We knew we were going to do some version of this,” Hailey said. “Then, when COVID happened, there was a whole bunch of surrendering happening in our family anyway... We know this industry can work and we knew we had to start somewhere. The time was now.”

Erik's initial plan was to start on a small scale and “test the environment,” but when the pandemic hit, it created opportunities to push ahead.

“We decided to double down and get the greenhouse up,” he said. “Things were shut down. While that happened, we took advantage of it.”

The couple own Snap Fitness and are in the process of merging it with Stride Fitness, so while their gym was shuttered during stay-at-home orders, it freed up their focus.

“The environment wasn't shut down,” Erik said. “And hemp (farmers) were considered essential workers.”

While the pandemic delayed shipping of the 16-by-100 foot greenhouse, everything else began to quickly fall into place.

“We're big into believing to 'trust the process,'” Hailey said. “So we just trusted the process.”

Hemp 101

It was unclear which was stronger – Erik's wealth of knowledge about the industry or his passion for it. Regardless, both were conveyed while describing the growing process and potential benefits the plants carry after leaving his greenhouse.

The plants grown at Grindstone Farms are not what is used to get high. Seeds of plants certified with no THC are required, and if the crop exceeds a certain percentage of THC, it is destroyed upon inspection by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“If (the plants) test out of range, it all has to be destroyed,” Erik said. “(The plants) look like this thing people identify as a drug. That is not the case.”

Healthline.com breaks it down: The term “hemp” is used to mean cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight.

Usually, when people say “marijuana,” they’re talking about cannabis that can get you high. Legally, marijuana refers to cannabis that has more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. THC content can vary among cannabis plants. Some strains are bred to be higher in THC than others.

And, just to be sure to eliminate confusion, the couple contacted local law enforcement about their business plans from the beginning.

“Erik was very transparent about the whole thing,” Hailey said. “The THC is bred way down.”

But, because of stigma associated with hemp, Hailey admits deciding to start the farm felt less risky than hitting enter on a social media post about the effort last week.

“It got a good response and people are extremely supportive,” she said of the post.

Future plans

With one summer in the books for Grindstone Farms, the couple have plans to expand the effort in the future, but said they'll keep “some cards close to their chest.”

“This summer was just testing the strains to figure out which one would work the best,” Erik said. “Eventually, this will be so vertically integrated that I will breed the seeds myself... We'll have businesses extracting the oil here.”

The hope to add local jobs accompanies the couple's future plans. Jobs could range from the farming side, to processing the crop and eventually, retail opportunities.

“Essentially, our goal is to create and educate,” Hailey said.

Erik agreed.

“I want to offer as much education about this as I can,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity in this and I'm looking forward to seeing where it can go.”