A local business owner is among the rare few capable of growing hemp in Indiana, and his company, DREEM Nutrition, may be ahead of the curve in not only growing the plant but also manufacturing CBD-based products locally and adapting hemp for growth in the Hoosier state.
In February DREEM Nutrition Owner Austin Rhodus moved his company into a 42,000-square-foot facility in Russiaville. Since then, DREEM Nutrition employees planted and harvested the first round of hemp in a plot just north of Russiaville and moved even closer to becoming vertically integrated with the construction of its in-house manufacturing facility.
Following that, DREEM Nutrition’s first iteration of locally-crafted CBD oil rolled out earlier this month. While these developments mark significant achievements, Rhodus hopes to create a broader impact by helping jump-start the hemp industry in Indiana.
That, said Rhodus, starts with a focus on breeding hemp plants specifically engineered for Indiana’s climate and providing farmers with the knowledge and seeds they need to begin growing their own hemp harvests.
“My dream always has been to bring this industry back home,” said Rhodus. “That’s what I want to see happen. So it’s exciting to see it come to fruition, see the industry start to catch on here and get a grip because we’re actually able to do things here now.”
Rhodus launched DREEM Nutrition in 2015. At the time, in order to sell hemp-derived products such as CBD oil, he depended on out-of-state growers and manufacturers. But then the 2018 Farm Bill opened up new options by reclassifying hemp from being a controlled substance to an agricultural crop.
Accommodations in Indiana law followed, making way for the industry.
But given the new ability to grow hemp here, Hoosier farmers aiming to cultivate hemp crops need to play a bit of catch up with other states, according to Rhodus.
As of now, most of the strains of hemp available for farmers in Indiana, said Rhodus, are from western states, with the closest coming in from Kentucky and Tennessee. But these hemp breeds aren’t specifically tailored to Indiana’s climate and microclimate. This can lead to less fruitful hemp harvests for farmers, decreasing returns for planters.
So, Rhodus has embarked on the endeavor of specially breeding plants that could thrive here. The process, however, is tedious. The ongoing construction at the Russiaville facility is aimed at alleviating that.
This year DREEM Nutrition is working with 10 varying cultivars, or breeds, of hemp: cherry blossom, T2s, Sisters, Blue Genius, and six strains of First Light.
While these cultivars have been used in the company’s outdoor planting operation, what will be integral is DREEM Nutrition’s 8,000-square-foot indoor grow facility, which remains under construction. When completed, it will be capable of producing 10,000 seeds for every 30 square feet. This facility will allow the operation to produce harvests year-round, about three or four harvests, as opposed to relying on the single growing season afforded outdoors.
This is crucial, said Rhodus, because the process of breeding an entirely new cultivar, a “truly new” genetic strain of hemp, takes about seven harvests. The indoor facility cuts the process down from seven years to as few as three.
The process is so time-consuming because, as Rhodus explained, plants are first pollinated using various strains with favored genetic traits. Then seedlings are gathered and planted. When they sprout or “pop,” as Rhodus called it, they are grown to maturity and examined for different physical characteristics. The plants also are put through various tests to determine what genetic traits have been inherited by the new plant. Then the process is repeated with the plants inheriting the desired traits.
“We’ll be looking at resistance to high amounts of rain and also drought resistance,” said Rhodus. “Basically, what you can do with each cultivar is you can grow the plant, examine the cultivar, and within each cultivar you have different phenotypes … What we’ll be doing on a mass sale is popping seeds, looking at the phenotype characteristics, and breeding off of those to create stable genetics that are scalable inside the big ag culture of the Midwest.”
From there the goal is to sell seeds to farmers, provide them knowledge on how to best grow the hemp plants, and then DREEM Nutrition would buy the plant back from the farmers in order to broker a sale or process it into a finished product while also trying to bring buyers to Indiana.
“That’s what the goal of the whole operation is,” said Rhodus. “We want to be able to sell the seed, bring the plants back in here, and dry it. We should be able to dry a couple million pounds here at least and sell that to different buyers and brokers. Bringing the industry and buyers to Indiana is the important part of everything right now. Because without buyers and the appetite of buyers to come to Indiana, we don’t need people to farm hemp, so that’s what we’re focusing on.”
All in all, it’s been an uphill battle getting the hemp industry started in Indiana, acknowledged DREEM Nutrition Chief Operating Office Greg Kruger. But, the industry and DREEM Nutrition have progressed quickly in a relatively short period of time. The progress DREEM Nutrition has made, said Kruger, would help fledgling companies avoid the pitfalls he and Rhodus have experienced.
“For me, I’m super excited mainly at the ability to build out our manufacturing and create manufacturing for other companies that we wish we always had because we’ve transitioned through, I want to say, four different manufacturing partners,” said Kruger. “We’ve caught a manufacturer cheating our product before and moved on. We’ve dealt with manufacturers that suddenly change the amounts we have to buy every month, and it puts us in a bad business place with financial difficulties.
“All along the way, until recently, we’ve been self-funded and done everything we could and tried to ask people to grow with us, give us smaller minimums, and work with us as we grow. It’s difficult to have that. I’m excited for the manufacturing to be able to give people what we’d hoped to exist. That’s super huge for me.”