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Hemp processing keeping Pleasanton business busy
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Hemp processing keeping Pleasanton business busy

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Dried hemp

With the help of a forklift and pallet, Sweetwater Hemp Co. CEO Rory Cruise, left, and head of extraction Brett Mayo unload a delivery made Monday morning of 4,000 pounds of dried hemp grown in southeast Illinois. Most of the hemp processed at the rural Pleasanton plant will be contracted from large growers.

PLEASANTON — A forklift, wooden pallets and some elbow grease made quick work Monday morning of unloading large white bags containing 4,000 pounds of dried industrial hemp from a truck to the warehouse area in the Sweetwater Hemp Co. processing plant southeast of Pleasanton.

The bags were placed on the floor near shelves filled with dozens of similar bags, each containing 150-250 pounds of dried hemp from other growers.

“That was his full harvest,” Sweetwater Hemp Chief Executive Officer Rory Cruise said about the southeast Illinois farmer who delivered his hemp Monday.

Hemp processing

Resin glands on cannabis plants that contain THC, CBD, other cannabinoids, essential oils and terpenes are called trichomes. Capturing trichomes is an essential part of hemp processing.

That connection was made through a common provider of hemp seed genetics, Cruise said, adding that contacts with other growers have been made through the sweetwaterhempcompany.com website.

The bagged hemp already on the shelves came from farms near Ogallala, 7,000 pounds with possibly twice that much to come from 25 acres; York, 1,000 pounds from 1 acre; and Grand Junction, Colorado, 500 pounds; and delivered by Nick Weaver of Gibbon, 500 pounds.

“Other farmers have been calling,” Cruise said about his efforts to source the amount of hemp needed for year-round plant operations.

As of Monday morning, all of the York farm’s hemp has been processed and the plant’s team was nearly half done with the original 7,000 pounds from the Ogallala farm.

Dried hemp

“I’ll be continually sourcing hemp from other farmers to schedule deliveries throughout the year,” Cruise said, noting that he sets his prices based in part on information from Hemp Benchmark, a company that monitors U.S. hemp production and sales for its online market data service.

Getting started

Processing with ice water extraction technology in the 16,000 square-foot building at the corner of Sweetwater and 180th roads started approximately three weeks ago.

The plant currently has three employees. Cruise’ brother-in-law Brett Mayo is head of extraction, and Tyler Zeigler and Juaquin Flores operate the two 2,000-liter processing units.

Also, digital Marketing Manager Jessica Krzycki is preparing the website for online sales of CBD products.

“Right now is our actual first week of full production,” Cruise said. “After this week, we can determine how much and how fast we need to bring in the biomass.”

When using both units, processing 240 pounds or more takes approximately 2½ hours.

Hemp processing

Employee Juaquin Flores monitors the plant’s two hemp processing units Monday morning.

Cruise said the plant is specialized because it processes the whole hemp flower with the biomass intact, while other processors remove the buds and grind down the biomass.

“I want to see the flower as a whole, with the tricombs ... so you’re not hurting the terpenes, but capturing the terpenes so it’s a full-spectrum product,” he said.

Tricombs are resin glands on cannabis plants that contain THC, CBD, other cannabinoids, essential oils and terpenes. Terpenes are a cannabinoid that gives flowers and herbs their aroma and flavor.

All industrial hemp grown in Nebraska and other states must be tested before harvest for levels of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis that must test below 0.3% in preharvest samples collected by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Hemp hybrids planted by Nebraska’s licensed growers are developed to be low in THC and high in cannabinoids, primarily CBD and CBG, thought to have health benefits.

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Cruise said equipment in the Sweetwater Hemp plant lab can’t meet the Drug Enforcement Agency standard level for the preharvest test, but will be able to test THC levels for farmers throughout the growing season.

Sweetwater Hemp’s processing plant equipment and technology are from Canada’s Whistler Technologies, located north of Vancouver. Cruise said that as far as he or company officials know, his facility is the world’s largest ice water extraction plant.

Hemp processing

Cold water and ice circulate with dried and frozen hemp to separate CBD, trichomes and terpenes from the biomass. The two 2,000-liter units at the Sweetwater Hemp Co. plant are believed to make it largest such plant in the world.

He said most hemp processing plants use solvents such as carbon dioxide, ethanol or butane to extract the cannabinoids.

The two ice water units at Sweetwater Hemp plant can process fresh, frozen or dried hemp. Currently, the bagged dried hemp is frozen — the plant’s large freezer was at minus 2 degrees Monday — before processing.

Cruise said having two units allows for identity-preserved batches based on extracting CBD or CBG, preserving plant genetics and serving different markets.

Step by step

Cruise said the processing starts by mixing 133 pounds of biomass with 600 pounds of ice and water that are kept right at freezing temperature.

The ice is made with purified reverse osmosis water stored in a 10,500-gallon outdoor tank. Cruise said it’s “full maximum” reverse osmosis with all other elements removed, which ensures the biomass is in contact with the purest form of water.

He said the ice and water keep the trichomes and plant material from sticking together.

A sifter removes the biomass, which Cruise said can be used on fields like any other valuable organic matter.

What remains is “bubble hash,” a mix of CBD trichomes and terpenes. He explained that the bubble hash will be melted down later and mixed with MCT, an organic coconut oil.

Cruise said another important plus with the ice water system is the freezing water keeps THC levels down, preventing spikes in concentrations that can occur with other hemp processing methods.

Moving forward

Cruise continues to source 2020 hemp from other growers and make contacts to secure 2021 hemp. In September 2020, he told the Hub he thought he would need hemp from 450 acres for year-round processing plant operations.

Sweetwater Hemp will sell its own labeled products, starting with tinctures, once a bottling line is in place. Cruise has rolls of label stickers, but is awaiting delivery of the equipment.

“We’re really close. We’re waiting for our bottling machine to come from Taiwan. It’s sitting at the port in Long Beach (California),” he said, adding that he hopes it will be delivered by mid-March.

Sweetwater Hemp CBD and CBG tinctures will be sold in 1-ounce and 2-ounce bottles, in multiple flavors and strengths. Cruise hopes to start making creams and salves with the oils in a few months. The products will be tested by a certified lab, Kennebec Analytical Services in Lincoln, for the third-party certification of label ingredients required before products can be sold at the plant or through the Sweetwater Hemp Co. website.

Dried hemp

Bags of dried hemp grown in 2020 are stored on shelves in the warehouse area of the Sweetwater Hemp Co. processing plant. Rory Cruise has contracted hemp from five growers in Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois, but continues to make contacts with other growers.

The CBD and CBG oils also will be sold to wholesalers and used by other companies that may make tinctures, creams, salves, cosmetics and food products.

Cruise said labeling and marketing must meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, even though they aren’t FDA approved. “You can’t say it’s for a specific ailment ... You can’t say it’s going to heal,” he explained.

He has used a CBD tincture for several years to help with sleep and to relieve pain, and said terpenes are known to help some people relieve inflammation. Users of CBG have said it helped them with issues such as anxiety, Cruise added.

His family’s Sprout House business already sells greenhouse-grown herbs to 350 Walmart super stores. Cruise said possibly selling hemp-related products to the large retailer will depend on FDA approving rules to put CBD in a dietary supply category.

There is room in the plant for a third 2,000-liter processing unit, but Cruise said future growth for Sweetwater Hemp Co. will be determined after product sales have started.

lori.potter@kearneyhub.com

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