MURRAY — The founder of a company that is establishing the first HempWood manufacturing facility in the United States at a location in Calloway County said recently that this is the first of eight such plants he has planned in his home country.
Greg Wilson, founder and CEO of the Maryland-based Fibonacci company, brought several samples of the hemp-based material that he has been using for flooring and furniture overseas, mainly in China, during the celebration ceremony for the new Center for Agricultural Hemp at Murray State University. That day, he also took the spotlight at the CFSB Center’s Murray Room to talk about the history of Fibonacci and how it has come to have such a deep relationship with the university.
He also said that it is important to this region for such a relationship to be in place, because Kentucky is at the center of a potential boom in manufacturing facilities for hemp-related products.
“Kentucky has got one, two, maybe three years to capture the actual brick-and-mortar manufacturers that are going to be popping up all over the place,” he said of how this is the prime time for communities to attract those types of facilities because hemp is still relatively new, at least in this day and age. It once was a kingpin crop for the commonwealth.
“If you get those here, though, we’re not going anywhere for 20 years or so, because we already have put up the buildings, set down the concrete and set up the machines. That means you’ve got income that’s going to come in, plus manufacturing jobs, for a 20-year lifespan. Then you look at the machinery involved and you start asking, ‘Well, is it cheaper to replace it or fix it up or get a new one?’”
Wilson’s company is one of five that joined the Murray State center as foundational partners, with CV Sciences, Vertical Wellness, GenCanna Global, Unified Ag Holdings Inc. being the others. He said he first began talking to Murray State officials about his product and how to create it starting in 2017 and, though things were a little shaky in the early going, the relationship between the two sides has grown quite cohesive now.
“I called Murray State and (Hutson School of Agriculture Dean) Dr. Tony Brannon answered the phone and I said, ‘Hey! I’m looking to build a plant and I need 10,000 tons of hemp. He said, ‘Ten thousand tons of hemp? What are you talking about here?’” Wilson said. “Then I came down and showed him some little samples of what we’ve been doing at our laboratory in Maryland and at Oregon State University. So we determined that this is where hemp has been grown historically, which we found in a podcast that talked about the battle of hemp bales during the Civil War. Hemp bales were used to storm a fort and they actually stopped cannon fodder from coming down, so in looking at that, we found that, historically, this is where hemp was from.
“One thing we also found is that the soil doesn’t change. Politics change. People change and all of that, but the soil doesn’t change, so this is where it’s going to come back to and this is where we decided to put our roots to. So we met with the university, got some of the crop that was grown by (Hickman County farmer) J.T. Workman and we started doing our samples.”
Then the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, making hemp legal again in the United States after it had been declared an illicit drug in the 1930s. With Wilson already in possession of patents he had obtained a few years earlier in anticipation of that happening, Wilson had everything in place to establish something in what he believes is the prime area for hemp.
“Now it’s more than we can handle,” he said. “We have three to four years of forward orders that people are trying to get to us and have multiple people trying to license our technology all over the world. It’s just too much to handle from a marketing side,” he said. “Plus we’re still trying to set up this little plant here. But the demand is definitely there.”
Wilson also remarked how facets within Murray State have already proven valuable on the research side of his product.
“I told Dr. Brannon one day, ‘You know, there’s protein in hemp seeds and, right now, we’re using soybeans (for boards that will be developed for furniture and flooring). Why are we adding a different commodity into our finished board? He said, ‘Let’s get our chemistry department on it,’ and this was after we’d had the business department doing an ad campaign. Now we’ve got agriculture students starting as our first interns and engineering students who are starting as interns too.
“We’ve got seemingly every facet of this university involved with what we are doing and it works beautifully and that’s what caused us to choose Murray over other towns less than an hour away. The school is right here! It gives you the educational level you need, it gives us the labor force you need to put into these factories and it gives us the technology or technological development to say, ‘Why use soybeans when you can use hemp seeds?’”
Wilson said his company started with 121 pressing factories, 53 of which were in China, using about 10,000 people that developed into a $3 billion-a-year industry. He said, through research, it was discovered that about 200 different types of plant fibers work in making the rectangular pieces that are then cut into boards and turned into flooring and furniture.
He said hemp was not thought of as a main player for this type of manufacturing, with bamboo leading the way instead.
“In fact, hemp was actually a joke in China,” he said, “I have a little piece of hemp about 6 inches by 6 inches sitting on my desk and when our different customers would come through, we’d give them a tour of what we’re doing and I’d tell them that the technological algorithm is so versatile no that we can turn weed into wood.”
Laughter filled the Murray Room upon that quip.
The plant is expected to be operational sometime this summer, generating about 25 jobs. There are also plans for a second facility to become operational on the same land in the future.