WINCHESTER, KY — “ARE you recording?”
It’s a gloomy October afternoon in Winchester, and Brett Goldman wants to make sure I’m getting this.
Goldman, GenCanna’s vice president of public policy, is wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans. His brown work boots are squishing in the mud below as he walks across the company’s 147-acre Hemp Research Campus, which was previously used as a research and development facility for a big tobacco company.
“We have already changed the world,” he said. “Every time that a state passes a law to allow for farmers to grow hemp. Every time we talk to legislators. Every time that we talk to farmers. Every time that we talk to consumers, that is changing somebody’s life.
“That … that really matters.”
Goldman is walking alongside Newt Cohen, GenCanna’s director of business development and external affairs, and his words are competing with the whir of a nearby forklift. A woman operating the machine deposits crates of hemp plants near a dryer, one of the early steps in a process that will result in hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Many of the plants are dried in “Big Blue,” a proprietary technology that dries and vacuum-seals hemp.
CBD is a non-psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis, not to be confused with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in the plant that has psychoactive effects on users. Hemp plants with more than 0.3 percent THC are considered marijuana, not hemp, and are not legal to grow without a medical or recreational license.
Cohen and Goldman, who are both Jewish, grew up in the Philadelphia area, separated in age by about a decade. They’ve both got a soft spot for their city but ambitions pushed them out. Goldman has spent much of his adult life in politics. Cohen worked in the hip-hop and entertainment industries. Goldman’s lived in Israel and Washington, D.C., and Cohen in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Both found their way to Kentucky, drawn to what they describe as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity — forming part of the nucleus of a rapidly expanding company that harvests, produces and sells what some have called a miracle oil. (GenCanna doesn’t claim any medicinal benefits for its products.)
They’re here to change the world, they say. They’re here to help farmers farm. They’re here to create jobs. They’re here to be on the frontlines of an industry that yields a product in high demand, and to revive an industry that once helped power Kentucky but was demonized and later banned by the U.S. government.
The Agricultural Act of 2014 removed federal restrictions aimed at growing industrial hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill, passed by the House on Dec. 12, removed hemp and hemp-derived products from the Controlled Substances Act. The new legislation effectively deems hemp an agricultural commodity, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) no longer has any claim to interfere with the interstate commerce of hemp products.
Two days later, GenCanna, not missing a beat, announced a $40 million, 100,000-square-foot facility in Mayfield, Ky., that is expected to increase the company’s capacity to 10 times its current product, which was 1,200 acres in 2018.
“I’m a big history person,” Cohen said. “It was really always about trying to do something significant. For me, personally, it wasn’t just about the money. Even though that’s part of it. A lot of it, for me, was more about the change, the shift. Creating a shift.”
“We’re pioneers,” Goldman said, confident. “We are pioneers.”
Hemp was part of the United States’ economy before the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed those who sold cannabis, hemp or marijuana. But the government encouraged farmers to grow hemp during World War II, with the plant used to make uniforms, canvas and rope.
The passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 made it illegal to grow hemp without a permit in the United States, effectively putting a halt to what had been a cash crop for farmers, including those in Kentucky.
Cohen started learning about the history of the crop in the early 1990s, when he read the nonfiction book The Emperor Wears No Clothes while attending the University of Miami. The book, written by Jack Herer, documents the benefits of hemp and the demonization that led to its ban.
“Reading that book changed my life,” Cohen said. “I always thought that if hemp came around it could be maybe the biggest industry in the world, and it could change the world for the better.”
The book planted a seed in Cohen’s head that’d take nearly 20 years to sprout. In the meantime, he started an independent hip-hop label, Quake City Records, in 1996 and made connections in the Philadelphia hip-hop scene, building relationships with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Patti LaBelle, The High & Mighty and several members of The Roots, he said.
Though the label folded in 2000, Cohen stayed in the industry doing consulting work and artist management. He moved to Los Angeles, fully immersing himself in the entertainment scene.
Then his father got sick.
Cohen was 12 when his father, Alan, had his first heart attack. He never fully recovered, with his health fluctuating throughout Cohen’s childhood. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, he deflected questions from family members about how long he had to live. But it was clear his days were numbered.
Cohen moved to his childhood home for a year and a half, putting his career ambitions on hold, to care for Alan alongside his mother and sister.
His father started to lose his balance. Walking became difficult. Cohen was the only family member strong enough to carry Alan, so for six months he hardly slept, constantly on call, transporting his father from the bed to the toilet and back again.
Alan Cohen died in 2008 from a heart attack. Cohen was dealt another blow soon after when his close friend Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose.
“I had a friend who was on top of the world. Everyone wanted to trade places with him,” Cohen said. “I needed to do something different. I just didn’t know what it was.”
That’s when he started hearing rumblings about CBD. The industry started taking shape in 2009-10, and Cohen made some early connections in Colorado. People were reporting that small doses of CBD were helping ease the effects of seizures.
“Having been a caretaker for my dad and being around all these families that were going through that, it touched me,” Cohen said. “I felt something in my heart.”
He also liked the idea of destigmatizing the cannabis plant and righting past wrongs. Cohen grew up on the Main Line, but his hunger for the hip-hop scene brought him to more diverse Philly neighborhoods, and many of his friends were people of color.
“It was a big culture shock for me to learn how different things were, the different things that people had to go through,” Cohen said.
In 2013, Cohen partnered with GenCanna founders Matty Mangone Miranda (CEO), Steve Bevan (president) and Chris Stubbs (chief science officer), joining a company with a triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental wellness.
The group was courted to set up shop by multiple jurisdictions giddy for potential economic growth, but Kentucky made the most sense. A big reason for that was Republican U.S. Rep. James Comer Jr.
Before he took his seat in Congress in 2016, Comer served as the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. If GenCanna came to the state, he told them, he would have their backs.
The 2013 Kentucky state law, Senate Bill 50, allowed for the production of hemp for agricultural research purposes. The Agricultural Act of 2014 authorized the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.
GenCanna participated in the first year of the pilot program in Kentucky, with a bigger harvest in 2015 serving as a test to see if the crop could be grown at scale. That’s around when Goldman first came to Kentucky.
“I just showed up and never really left,” he said.
After graduating from Farleigh Dickinson University in 2008, Goldman got a master’s degree in government and strategy from Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. He spent the next few years working on local campaigns throughout the Philadelphia area and ran a startup, the American Israel Business Lab, for two years. After a stint as the executive director of the Tamid Israel Investment Group in Washington, D.C., he started doing consulting and lobbying work.
He leveraged his connections to the Israeli business world in his consulting practice. When he first sat down with Cohen, at the recommendation of a mutual friend, for coffee, it was to discuss the hemp industry as it pertained to Israel, which is a global leader in cannabis research.
Goldman started working as a consultant for GenCanna in June 2015, balancing his responsibilities as a government affairs manager with Duane Morris Government Strategies. He officially left Duane Morris in June to work full-time at GenCanna.
Four months later, he picked me up at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., looking tired. He took a swig of coffee. GenCanna is no longer a startup, he said, but many in the company still work startup hours. People wear a lot of different hats.
Soon after I buckled up in the passenger’s seat, where I’d spent much of the ensuing three days as we toured GenCanna’s research campus and farms, Goldman uttered one of his favorite maxims: “Hemp is just like any other crop.”
Perhaps the industry’s biggest barrier to success is awareness, or lack thereof, of what exactly the plant is. Goldman wanted to make clear what it isn’t: marijuana.
It won’t get a user high. But it looks, feels and smells like it will.
As we pulled up to the HRC that first day, Goldman slammed his car door shut and took in the scent: “Smell like college?”
The next morning we arrived at Shell Farms & Greenhouses in Lancaster, Ky., where Giles Shell, GenCanna’s director of greenhouse and ag sciences, was watching over hundreds of acres of plants.
A fifth-generation farmer, Giles is built like a linebacker, with calloused hands and a musclebound frame. His father insisted he go to college, but he came back to the farm after graduating from the University of Kentucky because, he said, he had “mud running through my veins.”
He settled into life as a tobacco farmer. But the plant gradually became less profitable, Shell said, due to inflation. One day he was tending to one of his greenhouses when the GenCanna crew came by and asked him to consider growing hemp.
Nowadays, Shell is championed as one of the company’s success stories. But, at first, he was resistant.
“I wouldn’t even talk to them,” Shell said in his Southern drawl.
Shell put some of his biases to the test. He researched the plant. He learned about the apparent benefits of hemp-derived products. Eventually, the family cut down on its tobacco production to make room for hemp.
“We had some tobacco on this side, and hemp on this side, and we were standing around in the middle saying, ‘This causes pain. This helps people,’” Shell said.
Soon the tobacco was gone, and Shell became an employee of GenCanna, looking over GenCanna’s operation of 50-plus family farmers in the state. As he walked to a plot of hemp plants in mid-October, wearing work boots, blue jeans and a camouflage hoodie, a pair of family dogs scurried by, barking, tails wagging.
“They look happy,” Cohen said.
“Well, I’m happy, too, when I’m out here,” Shell said.
Soon after he decided to shift exclusively to harvesting hemp, his wife asked why he didn’t just stick to tobacco. There was risk in the unknown.
“Well, yeah, I can. But then my name gets written in sand and it washes away with the beach. I want to chisel it in stone so many, many people for many different generations are talking about what I’ve done,” Shell said.
I ask if it’s always been his goal to be remembered long after he’s gone.
“I think any man does,” he said. “You don’t want to be forgotten.”
That’s a common sentiment among GenCanna employees, including Goldman and Cohen.
“There’s generational things that happen, maybe once in a generation, a few times a century,” Cohen said. “There was the industrial revolution, railroads, the beginning of the internet. This right here is in that same category.”
Before the late-December government shutdown, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law. The legislation is expected to result in even more growth for an already rapidly expanding industry.
GenCanna, along with industry competitors Charlotte’s Web and CV Sciences, does not claim medical benefits of CBD oil, with Goldman noting that, at this point, it’s up to consumers to find potential benefits through trial and error.
On my last day in town, we drove to the part of the HRC where quality insurance, quality control and extraction happens. Once the plant is harvested and dried, it comes here. It’s the final stop before the product is sent out to consumers in a variety of forms: hemp-derived CBD, CBD isolate, creams, liquid emulsions and others. In the ecosystem of the CBD marketplace, GenCanna is a bulk wholesale manufacturer.
The parking lot was full, so Goldman backed into a makeshift spot on grass: “When we first started, we had too much parking. Now we don’t have enough.”
I sat down around a conference room table with Goldman, Cohen and Stubbs, the company’s lanky, smiley chief science officer.
Stubbs launched into a lesson about how hemp works.
“Most pain is inflammatory-based, and the cannabinoids, the essential oils, the fatty acids found in the plant, are inherently anti-inflammatory, and the mechanisms of action there are still under study,” he said. “We do understand two things. One, the inherent anti-inflammatory activity, where you’re dialing back your immune system’s pro-inflammatory activities, which allows tissue to become less inflamed, which allows you to heal. The other part about is … ”
Stubbs popped up from his seat, grabbed a marker and approached a whiteboard. He started drawing, explaining how CBD blocks the breakdown of endocannabinoids.
“It sounds like voodoo medicine, or snake oil, because it’s like, how can you have an effect with your seizures, your headache, your IBS, your hip pain, your this, your that?” Stubbs said. “The answer is all about the fact that the endocannabinoid system inherently regulates that inflammatory process, that central nervous system and peripheral nervous system process. It’s touching all these things.”
Soon we were joined by Rabbi Avrohom Litvin and his two sons, Rabbi Chaim and Rabbi Shlomo. The family runs Kosher Kentucky International, which certifies GenCanna products as kosher.
The conference room was full, as were the hallways outside. GenCanna employees in white coats, goggles and hairnets shuffled through the halls. As federal restrictions surrounding hemp fade away, GenCanna has plans to expand, both across the country and in Kentucky.
“We’re going to need more parking,” Goldman said.
Stubbs chimed in: “We’re going to need more buildings.”
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and the Jewish Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Jewish Federation Endowments Corporation.