In 2016, four siblings weren’t so sure they wanted neighboring farmers to know what they were up to on their 1,600-acre Iverson Family Farms.
Ken, Barb, Nels, and Paul Iverson decided to plant 18 acres of hemp on the farm, located in the pristine growing region of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The 150-mile valley extends from Eugene in the south to the outskirts of Portland in the north and is home to more than 600 wineries.
The Pacific Northwest climate fosters diverse agricultural opportunities, with more than 170 crops in the portfolios of those who cultivate more than 2,600 square miles of farmland in the Willamette region, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. For the Iverson siblings, who are now in a generational transition of handing the reins over to four of their children, 100-some crops have defined their 72-year-old family operation.
But when the Iversons first put cannabinoid hemp in their soil more than five years ago, they also planted a few rows of corn around the perimeter of those 18 acres.
“We didn’t want the neighbors to know what we were doing,” Barb says, adding that she and her siblings feared what the neighbors might think. “When you’re a [multigenerational] family farm surrounded by all our neighbors that we’ve grown up with, and they’re like, ‘What the hell are they doing now?’ That first year … we weren’t really out in the open with what we were doing.”
Hiding behind a few rows of corn wasn’t something the Iversons were used to.
Each spring, more than 100,000 people visit the family farm for its Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival, where guests have access to 40 acres of tulips and more than 200 acres of outdoor space for various seasonal activities. Now in its 38th year, the 2022 festival is scheduled to run from March 18 through May 1.
“I love going out at sunrise because we have the Cascade Mountains, and the sunrise is right behind Mount Hood at one point during the festival; it’s just an incredible experience, unlike anything else you do,” Barb says. “When you run across people who have been to our tulip festival, you just see it in their eyes—they go back to that moment. They go to their experience they had out here.”
If creating memories for people can help better their life journeys, then that’s what Iverson Family Farms is all about, Barb says.
But back in early 2016, when family patriarch Ross Iverson struggled with his health, Ken, Barb, Nels, and Paul did not know hemp could offer another avenue to help better people’s lives until they saw the “magic” first-hand with their dad.
Their father, a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who was deployed to England as World War II ended, and their mother, Dorothy Iverson, founded the family farm “with basically nothing” in 1950, Ken says.
Dorothy died in 2014 of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 86. In the later days of her life, then-88-year-old Ross was her sole caregiver. They were “truly a match made in heaven,” Barb says of her parents, who were married 63 years.
In 2015, Ross developed ocular melanoma and then was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in 2016. He was given less than two weeks to live.
Doctors sent him home with end-of-life pharmaceuticals, which helped his pain but left him completely incapacitated and lethargic, according to the family’s story on its company website.
Desperate to find something better for their dad, the Iverson siblings contacted their cousins, Tim and Ian Shaughnessy, who had recently begun manufacturing CBD products at their Portland extraction facility operating in Oregon’s state-legal cannabis market.
The Iversons were hesitant to use cannabis-related products, but they were willing to try anything that might help their dad. So, when they brought CBD capsules home from Portland to give to Ross, they did so with both “fear and hope,” they say on their company website.
At the time—before taking CBD—Ross couldn’t even get out of bed to use the bathroom, Barb says.
“We always joked that Dad had more lives than a cat, you know, [all] the different things that had happened on the farm over the years,” she says. “And this just wasn’t how we wanted it to end. It was horrible.
“We pulled Dad off all the crap he was on; we just took him off of everything and put him on the CBD capsule. It was like 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Well, I go in the house the next morning to check on him, and he’s at the table eating breakfast. It was that big [of] a difference. And talk about a mind switch on—holy cow. It was just phenomenal, a phenomenal experience.”
Out of bed with a clear mind, Ross went on to live another 42 days before he died “peacefully at sunset” at the age of 90 on April 25, 2016, according to his obituary. He got to enjoy one final Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival, wandering around the fields on the family’s John Deere Gator utility vehicle and talking and sharing memories with visitors.
It was a phenomenal way to say goodbye, Barb says.
“I don’t know if [the CBD capsules] extended his life,” she says. “It didn’t matter. So many people say, ‘Oh, I just wish I had one more day.’ Well, we had 42. And it was awesome. … So, that was our introduction to CBD.”
Ken says what made his dad stand out as a family patriarch was his willingness to always give back.
Active in his community, Ross volunteered 60 years at the Monitor Fire Department and spent 25 years serving on the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District. In addition, he served on the board of the Monitor Cooperative Telephone Company and two local school boards.
“He always believed in sharing in what he had,” Ken says. “With the tulips and things like that, we have a motto where we say, ‘We share the beauty,’ and that really comes from our parents. You always shared what you had. I think when you give of yourself, that just makes you somebody that people respect, and that’s why you become the [person] you are.”
Now, in an effort to continue Ross’s legacy, helping people through hemp and its cannabinoid derivatives is an “incredible driver” of Iverson Family Farms and its other family operations, Ken says.
Following their inaugural hemp grow in 2016, the Iversons scaled their operation to 550 acres of hemp in 2019, before market saturation took its toll on the industry. In 2020, the family hemp operation downsized to 21 acres, and then increased to 31 acres in 2021.
The third-generation family farm is also home to a fully integrated, seed-to-sale industrial hemp extraction company, FSOil, which began with a 90-liter prototype extraction machine in late 2016. Through the help of and in partnership with the Shaughnessys, FSOil now has 100,000 square feet of manufacturing area and 3,200 liters of CO2 extraction capacity, including six 300-liter supercritical machines and two 700-liter subcritical machines.
While the FSOil team includes younger generation family members Alison Shaughnessy Warlitner, director of sales and product development, and Megan Iverson, quality lead, it also includes team members with close family ties.
Megan Duvall, FSOil’s chief business officer, says Tim Shaughnessy (the Iversons’ cousin who provided CBD capsules to Ross) and her dad were best friends growing up, and Tim was like an uncle to her in her own childhood.
Beginning her career in the cannabis industry in early 2017, Duvall first worked as the operations manager under the Shaughnessys’ Portland-based craft cannabis extraction business, CO2 Dynamics. Duvall joined the FSOil team the following year and now represents the company on the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.
Working for both CO2 Dynamics on the cannabis extraction side of the industry with the Shaughnessys and FSOil on the hemp side with the Iversons, in 2018, Duvall helped establish what became a partnership among the cousins, she says.
“We were just kind of establishing different corporations so that the comfortability level of getting banking and insurance was there, because they were separate entities,” Duvall says.
Growing from four or five employees to 35-plus, FSOil’s expanding operation has separate extraction and post-processing facilities, and its team members have established themselves in the industry through certified practices. Both of FSOil’s facilities are Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certified, U.S. Hemp Authority certified, USDA certified organic, and kosher certified.
“I think the biggest challenge for us in the beginning was to start to install these GMP practices and these quality food safety practices in an agricultural environment,” Duvall says. “You know, our facility is on our farm. So, you go from a fun field to donning everything up into a GMP clean room.”
But the certifications did not stop there.
In October 2020, Iverson Family Farms became the first Global Good Agricultural Practice (GLOBALG.A.P.)-certified farm for hemp in the U.S.—a recognition of safe and sustainable agriculture worldwide. The accomplishment was driven by Giavanna Accurso, FSOil’s director of research and development, and provides the ability to move more fluidly within the international marketplace, Duvall says.
A big factor in receiving that certification was barcode traceability, she says.
“[We] know from the exact hemp extract all the way to where that field is, when it was grown, what strain it was, when it was harvested, when it was dried, all of that information, so [our] traceability is done within an hour and a half,” Duvall says. “And a lot of that GAP certification is knowing what goes on your land and mitigating any risks you can in your growing region.”
Traceability is becoming more mainstream in the maturing U.S. hemp industry because if manufacturers in the space want to enter the food/drug/mass (FDM) arena, then the traceability for potential recalls needs to be a standard practice, Duvall says.
While FSOil continues to scale, the team forages ahead without Tim Shaughnessy. In May 2020, the co-owner and CEO was in an accident resulting in a traumatic brain injury. After months of rehab, a shunt that was implanted in his brain failed. Despite the effort of his medical team to reverse the resulting actions, Shaughnessy lost the fight. He died June 12, 2021, at age 66.
“The majority of the business that Tim Shaughnessy had set up was based off of relationships and understanding these synergies as companies that worked together,” Duvall says. “So, it wasn’t just a transaction. It was a relationship.”
Continuing that legacy, Duvall says Iverson Family Farms and FSOil have built relationships with roughly 100 companies, including Innovet Pet, which provides CBD oil and hemp treats for cats and dogs. The Iversons and Innovet Pet have worked together since 2017.
Meanwhile, American actor and comedian Jim Belushi, who operates in Oregon’s medical cannabis market with a 93-acre farm, recently told Hemp Grower he was looking to partner with the Iversons’ farm to contract grow a couple acres of hemp and source the oil for his new CBD pet brand because of the fact that it’s family-run.
“They’re very diligent, they’re old-school, they’re hardworking, they grow tulips, and it’s a beautiful stretch of property,” Belushi said in September about Iverson Family Farms. “And so, I asked to engage with them and grow 2 acres of hemp for this product.”
In addition to Belushi, Iverson Family Farms has also grown hemp and provided some extraction services for industry giant Charlotte’s Web (CW), a global leader in hemp-based CBD products that are distributed to more than 14,000 retail outlets and 8,000 health care practitioners, according to CW.
“Pure chance,” Ken says about the family’s relationship with CW.
The relationship began when one of the seven Stanley brothers, whose legacy and vision led to the birth of CW in 2014, visited Tim Shaughnessy’s extraction facility in Portland. That led to Jared Stanley, CW's chief cultivation officer, traveling out to visit Iverson Family Farms, Ken says.
“They needed material for oil because they had a short crop that year, and we needed a place to go with our materials,” he says. “So, it worked out really well. It was a really good relationship for both of us, and we really enjoyed working with the family and the brothers and the company.”
Specializing and Diversifying
Over the company’s history, Barb has moved through the family farm in various areas and now manages the office as well as oversees the tulip festival; Paul is a driver at getting things done, whether it’s regulatory-related or developing processes for post-harvest operations; Nels is a fixer-upper, repairing equipment and getting new systems in place; and Ken’s expertise comes in crop management.
Attending to agronomic needs, whether it’s plant spacing, disease concerns, plant nutrition, harvesting, drying, or oil production, Ken has been involved with it all.
With a Mediterranean-like climate during much of the growing season in the Willamette Valley, where it’s warm and dry for the summer, the Iversons use a drip irrigation system to conserve water, Ken says.
“I can also kind of spoon-feed the crop as it grows,” he says. “We push a little bit of extra nitrogen on the front end, and then on the back end, we pull all that off and then increase other nutrients. It’s nothing [special]. I mean, we’ve always looked at [hemp] as just another agricultural crop with certain needs, and you just manage it like that.”
But annual rains start to begin around September or October, Ken says.
Taking that weather shift into consideration, the Iversons are now researching genetics that are a cross between daylength and autoflower varieties, which they hope will mature in September for an earlier harvest to avoid some disease issues that come with a later harvest, Ken says.
He adds that farmers in the Willamette Valley often will have to fight some Botrytis cinerea, a fungus disease that affects many plant species, including wine grapes that are popular to the region, according to Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Iverson Family Farms also is home to Wooden Shoe Vineyards, which first planted vines in 2009 and began bottling wine in 2012.
Overall, with their hemp crop, the Iversons have not had any major disease or pest problems and do not use chemical controls, Ken says. But the family’s harvesting technique is where things get a bit more interesting, he says.
After consulting with more experienced harvesters during their inaugural 2016 grow, the Iversons were told to cut and hang-dry their plants. Despite only beginning with 18 acres, they didn’t have the capacity, Ken says.
“It was really wet. It was rainy,” he says. “We felt like the crop was suffering from the weather.”
Rather than continue, the Iversons connected with a local farmer who owned a hop-drying facility and asked if they could dry hemp there, despite others advising them not to do so because it could destroy the integrity of the cannabinoid crop, Ken says.
“But, you know, we felt like if we were going to go on the route we were, the hang drying, we were going to lose most of the crop,” he says. “If I could salvage some crop, that’s how we looked at it; it’s why we did it. And it worked out really well.
“Then, when we started to extract and had good, quality oil, that changed our mindset," he adds. "We started looking at this as just another agricultural crop. How do we bring efficiencies? How do we [mechanize] this process?”
Moving forward, the Iversons transitioned to all-mechanical harvest and processing. They acquired a hop-grind facility and converted it into a hemp-grind facility to chop biomass. They also kiln-dry their material at very low temperatures to preserve the terpenes and the quality of their plants, Ken says.
At about 100 degrees, the Iversons can dry their harvested material in about 18 to 20 hours, he says.
“Then we take that biomass, run it through some equipment where we separate the woody portion from the leaf and flower, and then we grind it down to a size for our extraction,” Ken says. “That’s all done mechanically. And we dry down to about a 5% moisture, because we do CO2 extractions.”
Before extraction, the Iversons store their dried material in plastic tote bins with liners and seal them up so the biomass remains stable, he says.
Continuing to diversify their agricultural portfolio, the Iversons are now starting to experiment with growing some other botanicals, such as ashwagandha, stevia, and calendula, Ken says, because they believe there are additional manufacturing opportunities for botanicals.
“We’ve always been a very diversified farm,” he says. “People have always been very diversified [in the Willamette Valley], but I think that the change is more than just the mindset of being a farmer and a grower; it’s moving out into manufacturing, doing more vertical integration. I think that’s the diversification angle that the next generation is going [to] benefit from that will help make the farm more stable going forward.”
Now that Iverson Family Farms is exploring international opportunities and starting to think more globally with its GLOBALG.A.P. certification, Ken says his only worry is that maybe he and his siblings have created more than the next generation can handle.
In addition to Megan Iverson at FSOil, the Iverson Family Farms’ third generation also includes Jon Iverson, who specializes in economic sustainability; Brian Iverson, who is a key mechanic; and Christina Iverson, an accountant who runs the books for the farm and operates the family’s on-site CBD retail company, Red Barn Hemp.
Adapting to the hemp industry and new paths forward has been a fun puzzle, Ken says.
“It’s not often in your life you get to start off with something that really hasn’t been done and try to do it on scale and bring it up and make it work,” he says. “And figuring things out, it’s a fun thing to do. You don’t get many odd chances to do that.”
Diversification has always been a key ingredient to the success on the farm, he says.