Trichomes, weed crystals, the stuff that gets you high. (Photos by Rokosz Most)

“So farming in my opinion is probably the number-one industry on earth. Everyone thinks it’s computer chips or something Musk is doing. It’s really farming, and it’s the most essential industry in this country or anywhere else, and everyone just tries to beat down the price.”
John Lonczak, Hepworth CBD

Searching for Hepworth Farms headquarters off Route 9W in Milton, the pungent reek of marijuana hits the driver like a block of wood through the open car window before the farm ever comes into view. Hundreds of acres of the stuff.

Of course, in the industry lingo the crop is called cannabis, which associates it with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound responsible for a range of reactions between ecstatic euphoria on the one hand and crippling paranoia on the other. 

Contributing to the pungent odor from the farm is also hemp, another crop grown here which produces cannabidiol (CBD).          

Separated at birth, the crops appear as twin sisters. The difference between the two then is simply a matter of breeding choices.

John Lonczak, director of branding, product development and visual communications for Hepworth CBD, waits out in front of a yellow-beige building past some large greenhouses across the north-south highway from the firm’s offices.

“This is our lab number one,” says Lonczak. “It used to be the cherry-packing house. It’s where we started our Hepworth CBD business.”

It’s now affectionately called The Bunker. 

Lonczak leads the way inside. The branding and product development department is largely a state of mind, the packaging and printing area. A table of products just inside the door awaits the would-be manufacturer, wholesaler or curious consumer. 

Pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, health and beauty, lip balms, topicals, extracts and ingestibles. Packaged flowers. Skin-care products. Self-care products. A variety of offerings set adrift in that grey area where the FDA has yet to weigh in, preventing a booming business of CBD products from making professional claims regarding efficacy. 

Meet the cannabinoid family

“We work in extract, selection and formulation consulting,” explains Lonczsak. “So, say people come to us and want to make a chocolate with our distillate, we’ve already worked on the formulations with several different chocolate companies. In some respects, we end up training the manufacturer on how to process the oil to get the best results.”

An analytical laboratory has taken over a section of the large indoor space. A centrifugal machine sits on a countertop overrun with orderly trays of labeled plastic test tubes next to petri dishes, digital scales and other apparatus.

Lonczak introduces the operation’s analytical engineer and chief scientist, Adosh Mehta, who monitors the potency of products via an High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) setup that separates a given substance into its components. 

“We test everything from our flower to our ingredients to stuff that’s been sitting on the shelf,” Lanczak says, “and we’re always able to know where we are with all of our product.”

“THC is the psychoactive stuff,” explains Mehta. “CBD is the non-psychoactive. They’re all part of the cannabinoid family, so I can analyze the relative concentration of everything.”

A curious triptych of photographs taped to the wall, best described as extreme closeups of long-stalked jellyfish mushrooms, catches the eye, like structures made of dew drops. 

“Those are the trichomes,” explains Lonczak — little transparent factories that produce cannibinoids like THC and CBD as well as terpenes which are the compounds responsible for a flower’s smell. 

From monitoring the color of the trichomes, which change colors according to their maturation cycle from clear to cloudy to amber, farmers have found that they are able to gauge the last moment of peak potency just before degradation. That’s when it’s the best time to harvest the plant.

Weed science 101.

“We play by the rules”

Further back in the room, sitting closer to shelves stacked with boxes, a man talks on the phone.

“That’s Jorge Martins,” says Lonczak. “He’s in charge of business development. George is working on a substantial pharmaceutical contract. With regulatory compliance, international shipping and different nations’ specifications, the sales cycle is very long. There’s a lot to it. And this is our first year growing cannabis at some volume. The license granted is conditional for two years, but if we do well and play by the rules and are successful, then we should be able to get the license permanent.”

The shelves continue along the outer limits of The Bunker and Lonczak leads the way, explaining as he walks that the space is used to store every kind of inventory. 

“Some inventory of distillate, consumer product inventory. We do small-batch production, short runs, you know, 500,000 bottles at a time. Over here, this is distillate ready to go out the door, for people who manufacture vape pens. This is almost pure CBD. When we started this, we were selling it for like $2500 a liter. Now, well, there was the market crash in CBD. Everyone lost their shirts. 

The conditional license to grow over a period of time was the green light to develop systems here on the farm. They built our lab. This stems right from the top, from Amy and Gail, twin sisters who are running the farm.”

“Look at that green”

A Cornell Agriculture School graduate, Amy is the farmer, a pomologist. Gail handles the business side of things. According to Lonczak, the Hepworth farm is a seventh-generation family farm which was known for its fruit, like cherries and apples. It also grew other things, like fields of corn and vegetables. When Amy took over the farm in the Seventies, she converted it into a vegetable farm.

“Certified organic,” says Lonczak. “We typically grow about 550 acres of vegetables. Let’s take a ride around the fields.”

As we drive along the dirt road, the sun is bright and the light is yellow. Lonczak comments upon features of the Hepworth domain situated between Route 9W and Hudson River. We pass greenhouses used as nurseries and head out among the acres of fields already picked through twice and cropped down. We pull over to walk among them.

Lonczak remarks on the color and quality of the plants, their relative health. He’s ever on the lookout for mold.
It’s only the female plant in which a THC farmer is interested. The males are useless. 

Drying room.

“Some of the buds, I measured them, they were longer than from my elbow to the tips of my fingers,” he says. “You see all the little trichomes? Some of the bigger buds, the mature ones, are really frosty. Look at this one. Look at that color, that green. Now the leaves have turned purple, we’re just trying to get a little mileage out of it. We’ll let it grow for another week, They’ll get a little bit bigger, and then we’ll clip it.” 

The operation does spot testing to check THC content, among other data. That’s the business. You let the plants stay out too long, the THC levels can actually dip.
We get back in the car and head across Route 9W. Lonczak thinks the tail end of harvesting might still be going on out in the far-flung fields away from the Hudson River.

This cultivation is the sort of thing any American would have been arrested for even a decade ago.

Is the name Hepworth a pun on Hempworth? Lonczak responds. “Everyone thinks that. We actually tried that but we couldn’t get it. It’s already taken.”

“You see people moving?”

We drive back over the highway and pull up behind a large green box of a building near a wide concrete loading dock where a number of box trucks are backed in.

On the way to see the drying rooms, Lonczak takes us through lab number two, a long trailer set up for the science of extraction. Shiny metal stills, pots and frames, a complicated pipe maze of regulators and tubes, two rooms long are all controlled from a central touchscreen not allowed to be photographed.

After we head over the loading bay into the packing houses where vegetables are usually stored. Large wooden frames have been built out to hang row after row of the floor-to-ceiling leafy carpets of cannabis and hemp, while they dry. Industrial drum fans on the concrete floor keep the air moving.

In an adjacent wide hallway, the cannabis is packed in sturdy wooden crates fit to preserve ancient cultural treasures in a secret basement of the national archives. “This is where all our vegetables are stored before they’re shipped out,” he explains. “But we’re using this as drying rooms right now.”

Back in the car and out into the hills, up and down grades of crumbling dirt, we pass from harvested field to harvested field searching for the action. There’s only one other place to check just behind a line of tall trees.

“You see people moving?” asks Lonczak. “Then they’re harvesting.”

Trucks are parked nose-to-tail in a line. We drive around a large sinkhole full of muddy water, chuckholes and hardened slop dirt scoured with tractor-wheel tracks.

“Here, there’s a spot.” Lonczak points for us to pull in alongside a field with about 16 workers toiling, stripping the cannabis stalks by hand. We walk along the rows.

An absurd physical stab of guilt finds me where I loaf, writing in a notebook while other humans toil in the fields to the music of a radio.

Lonczak lets me know I can take pictures if I want.

“Being alive with it”

He calls out to a man in the rows. He introduces Michael Hart, a tall Jamaican with a thick accent, his dreadlocks tucked into a taller hat. 

Hart is Hepworth’s cannabis specialist.

The first words Hart says to me are that the Rastafarian movement is not violent or political. Surrounded by the marijuana fields, he is in his spiritual element as he explains the tableau. 

“It’s too late, man, you should be here when you have the golden harvest after crop,” says Hart. “Now you’re seeing the finishing, the third stage where it’s stripped. It’s not viable to do a harvesting and the hanging and drying, so you skip and find a method of drying. The same drying mechanism and the same drying system that dried out the entire plant is done in a crate container that has the air flow. You have that balanced humidity and everything that will go through and dry it in a crate.”

He demonstrates the stripping process, how to take the buds off very gently so they don’t get crushed. At random, he picks a tree, which is what he calls the stalk of the plant which remains from the true harvest and shows with his hand how the remaining buds are snapped off. He wears gloves to protect his hands from the rough stalk and to reduce the stickiness from the trichomes which get on the hands. 

“You know what, Michael?” says Lonczak. “I thought I was gonna be really sad to see the naked trees.”

“Well, this is all cannabis work, you know,” says Hart. “You have to understand it from the cosmic thing, you know. From a seed by germination to a vegetable to a fully mature vegetable, to a flowering stage, to a harvesting stage and back. It travels. So you’ve got to stop it at some point to achieve what you want. Your technique is when to do, how to do.”
“Breeding it,” agrees Lonczak. “Being alive with it. Being one.” 

The way the field is set up during the proper harvest, a tractor pulls this rig down the lane. The whole conveyor belt swings out across half the field. There are enough men for each row, and they’re clipping up high. The plants are taller than a man.

They do this all day long, putting the clippings on the conveyor. It goes down the conveyor, and people put it in boxes. Then the truck is backed up, and one of the tractors with a forklift picks it up and takes it away.

“We’ve been harvesting over the last three weeks, four weeks,” says Lonczak. “I wish you could have seen it. When this is on full tilt, everything’s moving: tractors, conveyors. Everyone’s talking and keeping the momentum up, and they’re going through the fields, and Michael is kind of visible because he has the head wrap…”

The farmers are the hard workers, he tells me. Farming is the most essential art, he says.

“Blessings, man. Blessings,” says Hart as we head back to the car.