From Tobacco to Hemp: A 21st-Century Farmer’s Story.

Keeping a family farm running for over 200 years is no small feat. Charles Dietzel of Carolina Heritage Farms talks about how his family has evolved with the times, and what’s on the horizon.

By Ian Bailey and Jamie Hardy

In February, Arable sat down with seventh-generation North Carolina farmer Charles Dietzel to discuss the newest incarnation of his legacy farm and their brand, Seventh Zen. We talked about his family’s transition from tobacco to agroforestry to now growing industrial hemp, and the role agtech has played in their decision to make the switch. With all the possibilities that come along with industrial hemp, visibility and traceability are going to be important to the success of the nascent industry. Their first crop will be planted May 8, 2019, with a tentative harvest date of
October 15 — depending on the season’s weather, overall plant health, and, of course, THC levels as regulated by the feds. We’ll be checking back in with Charles as the season progresses to follow him through his exciting venture with this versatile new addition to the American agricultural canon.

Charles’s great grandmother with her grandchildren, including his dad, in the family tobacco field. Courtesy Charles Dietzel.
Arable Labs: Tell us a little background about your farm. This is your first year growing hemp in North Carolina, right?

Charles Dietzel: That’s right. We’re in the southeastern part of the state, where the sandhills meet the coastal plain, historically one of the larger agricultural parts of the state. There’s a lot of interest in hemp and a lot of people are exploring it, slowly dipping their toes in to see what makes sense here, given the rich agricultural history and the slow transition over the past several decades, away from what has been the cash crop for North Carolina: tobacco. We are seventh-generation North Carolina farmers, very proud to be one of a handful of what are called Century Farms within the state of North Carolina. The land that our family owns has been part of our heritage for over two hundred years.

AL: Incredible. What was the a-ha moment, when the light bulb turned on and you decided to grow hemp?

CD: As you can expect, the way the business has been run has changed over the generations. As I come into my own, my dad and I have started to think about succession planning. We spent the last 18–24 months evaluating our different options, not only what to do with our property, but with our agroforestry experience. We looked at everything from livestock to getting back into specialty row crops for brewing. We stumbled upon hemp about twelve months ago, at the start of the first full season here in North Carolina. We spent about four months on industry research before we went forward with our license, and now we’re in the midst of getting ready for our own first season. We spent a great deal of time coming up with our plans for our field, from irrigation, to specialized machinery, to ensuring that we’re going to be able to deliver a quality product to market. One of the core things for us was to be able to collect as much information this first year as possible.

It’s a very labor-intensive crop, so I’d say acreage-wise, our operation is small, but labor-wise, it’s not. We have an experimental plot this year, with plans to scale fairly significantly over the next couple of years, as long as we can keep costs in check. As a commodity, there’s a number of different uses for hemp, and different ways that you can grow it: for fiber; protein powder; other types of products made from the hulls, the husks, or the heart; plastics, and being able to build out other industries across the United States. We saw the diverse applications of hemp. The hot topic right now in this industry is CBD, and the regulations behind it. There is an obvious consumer base for that, across the country. Now, how long that lasts and how long until it stabilizes remains to be seen from a commodity perspective. I think it’s unclear where the pricing on that is going to settle out; there’s no market like there is for corn, soybean, or cotton. You can’t go to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and say, ‘All right, this is how much a ton of hemp is worth today.’ The industry is so immature — and that’s exciting for someone like myself, who has the technology and data background to be able to enter into an area really like an ag start-up. We can partner with companies like Arable to be as cutting-edge as we can while still embracing the traditional agricultural aspects of the industry.

Charles installing an Arable Mark in his field, March 2019. He will calibrate it to the local weather for the next couple months, and then will move it to the field when he plants in May. Courtesy Charles Dietzel.
AL: Tell us more about your tech background.

CD: My background is fairly diverse when it comes to technology. I started out in environmental sciences and landscape ecology, and that quickly transitioned into a more computational focus with a focus on big data, simulation models, and artificial neural networks. I think machine learning and deep learning are the terms du jour. I did a lot of work in that space and data is really a passion of mine, so being able to capture all this information and use it in a decision support system for us is something that we find extremely alluring as far as giving us an edge in how we increase our yield and decrease our expenses.

AL: You have a PhD in computational geography, don’t you?

CD: That’s right. I did my doctoral dissertation in computational geography at UC Santa Barbara. I had the privilege of working on a project for three years with the Public Policy Institute of California, who was partnered with the Great Valley Center in the Central Valley. We looked at urbanization in California and the pressures that and other projects like the high-speed rail project put on farmland. That really exposed me to true big ag like we do not have here in the state of North Carolina. We don’t have as many things at that scale like you do in Kern County, where you can drive for five or six hundred miles on I-5 and go through nothing but farmland. It was really eye-opening as to why that’s the breadbasket of America, and one of the largest agricultural producing regions on Earth. And that’s really stuck with me, as someone with a farming tradition in our family. Leaving North Carolina and going out there — to then be able to come back to where I am now in life and start on this venture continuing our family tradition has been a wonderful journey.

The Dietzel boys, ca. 1937. Courtesy Charles Dietzel.
AL: Your family has been doing this for centuries; what was the evolution of technology on your family farm up to now?

CD: [laughs] Fairly nonexistent, to be honest. My grandparents were very traditional in this sense. After they passed away, as with any generational transfer, we were trying to figure out what was next. From a technology standpoint, we tried simple things, like building our own forecasting model in Excel. Given both my and my dad’s technology backgrounds, we now have the ability to adopt these new sensors and to leverage that kind of information. In an ideal world, we would have a complete IoT approach, where everything is interlaced, talking to itself and to us, and we are able to tweak things on the fly and adjust as needed. Some sort of recommendation engine trained on historical data is the ideal state that we would love to be at. This is really a transformative moment for us.

AL: What other agtech are you using?

CD: We are exploring a number of sub-ground sensors out there. Because we use it for some of our larger parcels of land, we’re also leveraging different imagery collection and algorithm platforms with multispectral imagery to give us some indication of the things that are happening on the ground. We plan to use that this year on a fairly regular basis, and partner that with the information that we get from the Arable Mark. Partnering with an agtech company like Arable up front is critical because it allows us to collect a ton of data and learn lessons as we go through the season, tweaking our irrigation, tweaking our fertilizer plans, and seeing how the plants respond on a day-to-day basis. We’re also able to look at the weather forecast at a more granular level, make adjustments and ensure we’re not wasting water, not spending extra electricity running well pumps. We’re able to make smart decisions and actually automate as much future decision-making as we can.

AL: How will agtech help you navigate the highly-regulated hemp space?

CD: North Carolina has been very forward-leaning with clearly defined requirements for the license, and a very open process for granting them. I think technology is going to help throughout the entire life cycle here, everything from seedlings all the way up to production of a product. You look at what other companies in the space have done, like ripe.io in San Francisco, being able to create a traceable food chain — no pun intended — all the way from farm to fork. With as many different products as can come from hemp, having that traceability all the way back to the soil is, I think, extremely critical. And the data along the way as well; people have to have that information at every stage to create a better product. Whether you’re a grower, an extractor or processor, or someone selling product at the end direct to the consumer, technology is going to be critical all along the way. I have to think at some point, blockchain becomes a major component of this as well.

The Arable Mark deployed at Carolina Heritage Farms. Courtesy Charles Dietzel.
AL: Do you see this trajectory as the future of farming, or do you think people aren’t able to necessarily adopt technology in this way?

CD: My hope is that people will, because it reduces waste and makes a more sustainable product in the long term. One challenge is bridging the gap between traditional farming and agtech; there’s a gap in vernacular and understanding between those two sets of populations, and we really need to find a way to bridge that. It’ll come with time, but it also has to come with an understanding of what the return on investment is. It’s not just an agtech transformation, it’s a societal technology transformation, which is a much bigger challenge. But when you look at the farm bill that passed in December and the additional funding that went in there to increase broadband reach throughout the country, that’s a fantastic thing that will open up other capabilities to a whole other range of farmers. Especially looking at 5G and the power that can bring, the speed and connectivity and creating networks of networks when it comes to sensors.

AL: What impact do you see the farm bill having on industrial hemp?

CD: Long-term, I think it will have tremendous impact. It’ll be a challenge to enact some of the provisions that were in there, like hemp farmers being able to get crop insurance. I’m no expert, but it doesn’t look like that’ll be available for this coming season, given that we’re already 75–80 days out from planting for most folks here in the Southeast. But I think it’s hugely beneficial in that it removes the gray area for this particular species of cannabis being a Schedule I and puts the onus on the states to tailor their own programs to their needs. There’s not a one-size-fits-all model for this. I think regulating the levels of THC and other things that are in the farm bill are great on the federal level, but delegating it back down to the states and opening-up commerce between states for hemp were some of the major watershed moments. I don’t think we’ll see the full impact for probably two or three years. Even here in North Carolina, it’s taken some time to get some steam, for everyone to learn the lessons over the last few years, so the new people like myself don’t have to relearn them. But we can take on the experience that others are willing to share as we go into this.