It All Began Here
Standing in front of hundreds of bails of hemp, housed in a Waynesboro warehouse on a rainy winter day, it doesn’t take Marty Phipps long to arrive at his favorite Thomas Jefferson quote: “Hemp is the necessity for the wealth of our nation.”
Growing up in the shadow of Jefferson, an Albemarle High School graduate and now a permanent resident, activist, and entrepreneur in the region, Marty is firm in his conviction that both the past and the future of hemp begins here. “I see this more than anything as a jobs movement,” he says. “This is our chance to bring life back to empty towns in Virginia, to revitalize those towns. This is our chance to say that farmers don’t have to lose their land, that they deserve a livelihood in which they can thrive.”
From Food Service to Activist Entrepreneur
Marty’s career began in food service, which he credits as teaching him valuable customer service and entrepreneurial skills. When he found himself back home in Virginia five years ago and looking for his next investment, a friend and founder of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition invited him to a meeting, a gathering which at the time included no more than about half a dozen members. Suddenly, Marty was hooked. He quickly became the Coalition’s regional coordinator for Central and Southwest Virginia, holding community round tables and movie screenings, working to educate everyone from his father to Virginia legislators.
As his activism grew, Marty’s entrepreneurship merged with his passion. “We needed an endgame,” he recounts. “Here I was talking with farmers, researchers, and policy makers, but I knew we needed to move beyond talk. We had to demonstrate that there is an incredible market and demand for this product.”
Growing Demand and Building Networks
The biggest challenge for launching and growing Old Dominion Hemp was a widespread lack of awareness of the legality, uses, and possibility of hemp products. While Virginia allows the growing of hemp under University-sponsored research programs, growing for commercial purposes is restricted under various federal and state statutes, a ban dating back to early restrictions on the biologically related cannabis plants. While hemp and marijuana are governed by many of the same federal statutes, their uses, effects, and biology differ dramatically. In terms of hemp’s safety and possible economic uses, Marty says “we still have so much education to do.”
The first eight months of launching Old Dominion Hemp, Marty spent most of his time talking with potential clients and donating his product to deserving nonprofits. Old Dominion Hemp imports crushed pieces of hurd, the inner stem of hemp plants, from Europe and sells it for horse and other livestock bedding. While his product is organic, absorbs four times its weight in water, lasts four times longer than competing bedding products, and reduces dust and odor smells, it’s unfamiliar to the market. Beginning with horse therapy and educational nonprofits, he began sharing his product around. Quickly, word spread.
“We began selling publicly in April 2016,” says Marty. “Since then, our sales have sky-rocked. We used to import a shipping container every couple of months. Now, we’re selling two a month. In some cases, we’re shipping entire international shipping containers to new customers across the county. It’s fantastic.”
Waynesboro as a Home for Innovation
While Marty sells bedding, it’s clear that his business vision extends far beyond the stack of bedding bales in the warehouse. He works with U.S. farmers to understand possible demand. He’s passionate about building US infrastructure for processing and using hemp products, which as production restrictions lift he believes have incredible fabric, biofuel, bioplastics, and bedding applications. He sees himself as a connected node for an emerging network that will one day form the U.S. hemp industry, now in its infancy and thus full of untapped and unexplored potential. He’s already sold his product for housing applications, and the idea of naturally built homes for veterans clearly occupies one of his soft spots.
For him, Waynesboro was the perfect spot for launching this evolving venture. With far lower rent than his Charlottesville childhood home, low overhead gives him room to experiment and to take new risks. “This is the type of town that needs to grow this industry,” he says. “Here we are, with both historic manufacturing space and surrounding farmland. This is ground zero for hemp.” With New Country Organics, a leader in the organic feed business, headquartered just across the street from him and now serving as a wholesale customer and retailer of Old Dominion Hemp’s product, it’s clear that Waynesboro’s local economy is both welcoming and leveraging his enthusiasm.
Advice Grounded in Passion and Experience
Asked what advice he has for fellow Waynesboro entrepreneurs, Marty doesn’t hesitate. “Constant follow-up,” he says before adding “Instant follow-up.” Marty’s passion to both sell and educate, combined with his training in food service customer service clearly serves him well. “Once you have someone buying you product, it is your job to retain them, regardless of how good your product is.” For him, that means staying current on environmental benefits, returning emails, sharing knowledge, and merging his business with his goal of building a better world.
“As entrepreneurs, we have to fight for what want,” he says. “It’s what we do every day.”
To learn more about Old Dominion Hemp, check out their website at http://www.odhemp.com. Also, check back at GrowWaynesboro.com for regular updates on their fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners who are working with Marty to build a more vibrant, better connected local economy.