By Lorne Chambers
Hemp is one of the strongest natural fibers in the world. It’s even stronger than some metal chains. Yet hemp’s supply chain still remains somewhat capricious in this country. A new S.C.-based startup aims to fuel innovation and forge links where none may have existed before.
“We do not promote the plant. The plant is not our space; we promote getting your industry set up with whatever you need because without that, the plant is just a plant,” said Artie Perry, a founding partner in Hempgrid, a new entity formed by the Hemp Alliance Group. The group is a consortium of executive-level leaders from diverse fields who are pooling their experience and resources with the goal of leveraging hemp to strengthen the domestic manufacturing economy and reduce imports.
According to Perry, weak links in the supply chain currently stem from misinformation and residual stigmas surrounding a plant that shares a kinship with marijuana, which is still an illegal drug in South Carolina and 16 other states. But with a full project pipeline already in place, Hempgrid is focused on creating or strengthening the marketplace for hemp fiber and for health and wellness derivatives, such as CBD.
“Until the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was illegal to grow or process in the U.S. for generations, though this sustainable plant has thousands of potential uses,” Perry said. “We’ve wakened that sleeping giant, and a giant wakes up hungry. Our aim is to help feed the industry by connecting companies who need one another but don’t know where to look, or how to evaluate and collaborate.”
The S.C. Department of Agriculture began a hemp program, which allowed a small amount of growers to legally grow a small plot. In 2019, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a bill that expanded the number of growers who can participate in the state’s hemp program and the amount of acreage they can grow.
Perry, who once worked as an investment recruiter for former Gov. Carroll Campbell for what is now the S.C. Department of Commerce, sees unlimited potential for the hemp industry in South Carolina and beyond. With viable uses including clean energy, building materials, automotive parts, and paper and plastics, hemp is poised to disrupt nearly every industry, while serving as a sustainable resource with carbon-negative production, according to a news release from Hempgrid. Perry said hemp will impact all 11 sectors of the S&P 500.
Just as an example, one of Hempgrid’s early projects will pair a patented pulping technology — that can turn the waste from hemp or CBD production into fiber for food-safe containers — with a manufacturer ready to add new production lines. Future plans include developing hurricane-resistant building materials as a cost-effective, green solution for residential and commercial construction.
Despite hemp having been spun into usable fiber for hundreds of years or longer, today it still remains taboo in some places because it is associated with “drugs,” even though industrial hemp must have less than 0.3% THC — the compound that produces marijuana’s high — by definition in the 2018 Farm Bill, and industrial hemp is unsuitable for producing marijuana.
Hempgrid has already assembled a small network — a “grid,” as it were — of vetted suppliers in raw materials, clean transportation, product design, sales strategy and technological innovation.
But perhaps its most impressive assemblage to date is the team that Perry and his partners have amassed. Hempgrid is made up of a varied consortium of experts from manufacturing, technology, biotech, medicine, entrepreneurship, international supply chain, marketing and branding, contract negotiation and more. Most are Charleston-based and had previously never worked in the hemp industry.
Perry said their individual backgrounds, like fibers of hemp woven together, will strengthen the supply chain and can help create a better future for our state and our planet.