This feature originally appeared in the debut November 2018 “Entrepreneurship” Issue of Native Business Magazine.
“All living things deserve respect,” says Alex White Plume, Oglala Lakota, who performs a ritual before each hemp harvest. “We tell the plant, ‘Thank you. We’re going to use you.’”
After 1998, when White Plume planted his first acres of hemp, thoughts kept him up at night: “Are we doing the harvest ceremonies right? Are we singing the right songs?” White Plume told Native Business Magazine.
His concern about cultivating hemp while honoring Lakota tradition turned into a living nightmare between 2000-2002, when dozens of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents raided his hemp fields on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Descending with “weed wackers,” they chopped the towering plants to the base of their stalks, and ripped others up from the roots. “It gave us PTSD; it shocked us,” White Plume said. “They call it ‘eradicating.’ To us, it was theft of our property.”
Little did the agents know, the violent assault shook loose new seeds. “The DEA successfully replanted our field for us. We called it a DEA/FBI hemp field, and used it as a tourist attraction for a while. People had a good laugh about it,” White Plume said.
DEA agents didn’t arrest White Plume or his family. Despite misperceptions, hemp is not classified as a drug. While its mirrors the marijuana plant in appearance, hemp does not contain high levels of the psychoactive chemical THC. Industrial hemp lends itself to three categories of product: fiber, seed and cannabidoil (CBD). Hemp offers vital nutrients in food or supplement form.
While White Plume wasn’t thrown in jail, his battle to grow and process hemp was hardly over. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a permanent injunction against White Plume, banning him from planting hemp. A federal judge lifted the one-of-a-kind ban in 2016.
In spite of numerous legal setbacks and discrimination, White Plume remained steadfast in his mission — to raise industrial hemp to generate vital income for his family and Tribal members on the most impoverished reservation in the United States.
“I live in the poorest community and the poorest county in America today. I was desperate to bring some type of economic development in, where we could use the land without destroying the land,” White Plume told Native Business Magazine.
For the White Plume family, that time has finally arrived.
The White Plume family has partnered with Evo Hemp to produce full-spectrum CBD extracts. The Boulder, Colorado-based Evo Hemp is known for its line of Hemp Bars sold in more than 3,000 retailers, including Whole Foods Markets and Kroger.
Today, anyone can purchase organic HempX Extract and HempX Capsules, made from White Plume’s organic, cannabinoid-rich hemp flower. His products are sold on EvoHemp.com, Walmart.com, and on the shelves of dozens of retailers across the country. “We’re hoping that it will be Wal-Mart brick and mortar stores soon,” Evo Hemp President Ari Sherman told Native Business Magazine in November.
“We decided to partner on 10 acres [of hemp] with Alex White Plume, because with CBD [as opposed to fiber or seed], you need a lot less acres. Ten acres will produce well over a million dollars’ worth of industrial hemp,” Sherman said.
Evo Hemp brings a wealth of advantages to the table including a sales network of more than 100 people deployed across the country. The company’s products can be purchased in more than 3,000 retail stores including Kroger, Costco, Whole Foods Markets, and a number of small natural food chains. “We’re really hitting the mainstream consumer with our hemp products,” Sherman said.
Evo Hemp anticipates that the White Plume hemp line of extracts will account for 25 percent of Evo Hemp’s revenue in 2018. The parties are in the process of moving toward an equal partnership.
“For this first round [of CBD products], we paid the White Plume family a significantly higher price — over the market price — and put a premium on the [hemp] flower to ensure that they had a solid income from their work,” Sherman said. “We’re moving to a profit-sharing model, where it’s about a 50-50 partnership.”
For White Plume, seeing his name on CBD bottles and finally earning income off his labor is fulfilling. But his greatest joy comes from driving economic opportunity for his family and future generations of White Plumes. “Whatever I make, I’m going to reinvest for my daughter and grandchildren to continue this effort to support our family,” said White Plume, who has appointed his daughter Rosebud White Plume as CEO. “We’re matriarchal in our clan,” White Plume said. His grandson, who at age 3 watched with tears in his eyes as DEA agents removed their hemp plants, now serves as manager of the land.
Alex White Plume is also proud that his farming operation is providing jobs on a reservation plagued with a 90 percent unemployment rate. This fall, he hired 16 people for harvest.
“I’m having an impact on my community. Unemployment has been here so long; people here don’t know how to work. Physically, they work for three hours, and they’re tired,” White Plume laughs. “I tell them: You’ve got to exercise, so you can work.”
White Plume also aspires to expand beyond the CBD supplement market to produce hemp byproducts with Evo Hemp. “I want to do everything they [Evo Hemp] do — make hemp candies, hemp foods, hemp breads — use the hemp for all of its means. And I want to replace everything plastic,” said White Plume.
White Plume’s hemp is ideal for CBD extracts and food products, because his fields are completely organic. “We won’t use chemicals to get maximum yield, maximum growth,” White Plume emphasized.
Organic farming is also critical, because industrial hemp absorbs everything in the ground. “Hemp plants can absorb heavy metals and pesticides. They’re really good at cleaning up the soil, which is a kind of double-edged sword. It’s called phytoremediation,” Sherman explained. “That’s great if you’re trying to clean up a place like Chernobyl that had a nuclear disaster, but it’s also really bad if you’re then trying to consume that hemp. Making sure that industrial hemp is grown on very clean, organic soil that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers is very important.”
Evo Hemp’s CBD extraction process is called “sub-critical CO2 extraction.” Traditionally, CO2 extraction is performed “super-critically” at higher pressures and higher temperatures. Sub-critical extraction applies lower pressure and lower temperatures on the hemp flower, preserving the terpene profile and other compounds like anti-oxidants. “It’s a little slower and costs us more money, but it gives us a superior oil, when you look at the terpene profile. That’s the beauty of full-spectrum,” Sherman said.
The health benefits of consuming CBD extracts are innumerable, whether an individual is taking CBD to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy or an auto-immune disorder, to reduce pain, or for preventative measures. “I take CBD because my grandparents have Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Sherman said. “I know it’s genetic, so I’m trying to take things like fish oil and cannabinoids as a neural protectant and to prevent further brain problems. I take it every day and try to take it with my multi-vitamins.”
Building Tribal Partnerships
Beyond business with White Plume, Evo Hemp is in discussions to partner with the Oglala Lakota Nation on a 250-acre project for grain production and seed.
“We’re collaborating on CBD products with Alex [White Plume], but for the Tribe, we’re working on a larger project. We hope that in 2019, we’ll have over 200 acres of industrial hemp in partnership with the Lakota Tribe,” Sherman said.
While Evo Hemp has partnered to process 10 acres’ worth of White Plume’s industrial hemp for CBD, the company is eyeing significantly more acreage for its partnership with the Tribe — but there’s a reason for that. “When you grow for seed production, you need a lot more land,” Sherman explained. “You get about 2,000 pounds per acre of seed, but that’s still no way near the dollar amount you would get for an acre of CBD plants. Your average-sized grain farm is 100-200 acres.”
Evo Hemp hopes to bring economic prosperity to other Tribes as well. The company’s ultimate mission is to revitalize economies through industrial hemp, bringing high-paying agricultural jobs to poor, rural communities.
“My main mission is to show that you can revitalize these poor communities just by introducing industrial hemp. We’re trying to spread that message globally. We have projects in Belize, in Columbia, and in South Africa as well,” Sherman said.
Evo Hemp plans to collaborate with more Tribes across the United States — and Sherman hopes White Plume will facilitate those relationships. “Alex White Plume is forming an Indigenous consulting group that’s going to help other Tribes get their projects off the ground,” Sherman said.
The window of time from idea to hemp product is insignificant — roughly four months. The hemp plant requires about three months to grow. Hemp needs a couple of weeks to dry, and then a couple of weeks to manufacture.
“You can grow hemp in greenhouses during the wintertime in controlled environments. Evo Hemp would need to survey the land and provide the genetics. Most of that is done through clones now that can be shipped internationally and statewide. It probably takes a month of consulting, depending on whether they were an agricultural community or not. From initial idea to finished product you can do it in about four months,” Sherman said.
Farming, though, is just one side of the industry. Processing is the next part of the equation — whether it’s processing grain, pressing hemp seed oils, or extracting CBD. “You really need two separate processing plants: one for food and one for CBD production. That entails bringing in those CO2 extractors. People are going to find a lot of economic growth in those ancillary jobs,” Sherman said.
Beyond processing, Sherman envisions the Oglala Lakota Nation owning a genetics program to test for genetic quality and to create hemp seed clones.
“My vision is to have the Lakota Tribe build their own processing plants and process their own hemp seeds, make their own protein powder, and mill their own oils. Evo Hemp would just be there to help them market and sell their products. Our interest lies in marketing, branding and selling, and pushing this message further [about the viability of industrial hemp to revive economies].”
Meanwhile on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Alex White Plum is planning his retirement. “I had all these wild dreams. I was young and wanting to do something,” he said of his ambitious foray into industrial hemp. His determination is paying off, turning a new chapter for the White Plume family. “I wrote a path that’s easy to follow,” he said.