Gold Standard Farms is a family-owned, Tennessee-based hemp cultivator with nearly 100 years of history behind it.
While much of the company’s history is rooted in traditional agriculture, including soybean and corn production, Gold Standard Farms CEO Jarrel Howard has launched his family business forward into a new era with hemp cultivation.
After taking over as CEO in 2020, Howard introduced hemp cultivation to his family’s farm, adding a new crop to carry the company forward. Later that year, Gold Standard Farms became the initial strategic partner for Viola’s incubator program, which launched in October 2020.
Now, with Howard in his third year as CEO, he’s certain this was where he was meant to be all along.
“This was my purpose,” Howard says, “to be home and take care of the farm for as long as I can and make sure we get another 80 to 100 years out of it.”
Howard joined Cannabis Business Times for this exclusive interview to share insight on how Gold Standard Farms has evolved over the years, how hemp revolutionized the company, and what the future holds for his family business.
ABOUT GOLD STANDARD FARMS
Year founded: 1941
Location: Martin, Tennessee
No. of Employees: 6 full-time, 25-35 part-time during harvest
Total acreage: 70 acres, with 9,700 square feet of indoor cultivation
Your cultivation style in one sentence or less: A better solution
Zach Mentz: What can you tell us about Gold Standard Farms’ cultivation?
Jarrel Howard: It's indoor. We have 100 lights. We got 22 benches, but right now we're only working 10 of them. We're going to do some expansion as we progress, but we are excited about the indoor, and we've got some cool things with some cryo freeze dryers, scientific freeze dryers, traditional trims, CO2 trim, [etc], so it's our laboratory to create those better solutions. We're excited about the progress we've made coming from greenhouse and outdoor to the indoor side of things for hemp.
ZM: Did shifting from outdoor/greenhouse cultivation to indoor give you more control over your environment?
JH: Yes. More control, more quality product. One of the toughest things I tell people all the time when doing an outdoor grow is there's so many things we don't control. We're not going to be able to control the weather, we're not going to be able to control the insects and all of those things nature has provided. So when creating a product that may be ingested in edible form or smoked, we want to make sure we know every single aspect of what's going on. So the indoor [cultivation] for us was a necessity because our mantra is to provide a better solution. So we want to make sure that we have the most organic and cleanest flower, or whatever the product SKU is, and it's documented from seed all the way to sale.
One of the things that I learned from touring with [Viola CEO and Co-Founder] Al [Harrington] was I wanted to take the same standard operating procedures that you might see in a traditional cultivation and implement that for us just to have the staff trained and ready for whenever the state of Tennessee does go legal for cannabis.
ZM: You mentioned Gold Standard Farms’ mantra, “A better solution,” and how you're dedicated to creating those better products. What are the products that Gold Standard Farms offers?
JH: We started off traditionally with white-labeling opportunities for flower, gummies [CBD and CBG] and salves. Those were our main three. Now we're looking to implement a 60/40, where 60% of what we're doing will be on the sustainable side, and then 40% will be inside, whether that's edibles, cartridges pre-rolls, flower, [etc].
ZM: What can you tell us about the history of Gold Standard Farms? I think you've previously mentioned, in the 1930s, there were 10 people in your family working to save up and purchase the land for Gold Standard Farms?
JH: [They saved] $100 dollars. If you look at that time, a lot was going on. For African Americans, they are about two generations removed from slavery. You have my great-grandfather, who's a sharecropper, so he's making say $100 dollars a year or whatever the case may be. The Great Depression is getting ready to kick off, and then you still have World War II. We are past the roaring 1920s, and we were going into a tough time, as everybody knew. It was even tougher for a person of color at that time. I think [my family’s] biggest thing was to have something in which they could pass down from generation and generation.
My great-grandfather was really big on not accumulating debt; if he couldn't pay for it in cash, he didn't want it. So there were plenty of opportunities where other farmers, once we moved to Martin, would come and try to trick him, “Hey, I know your 50 acres is paid for, but I've got seven acres over here. Why don't you just use your 50 acres for collateral? And you can get this seven acres, and you can get this.” And he was like, no. He was 51 by the time he ever got his first piece of property, so he's not necessarily trying to take chances and gamble it all.
And I think with the kids being able to work – when I say the kids, my grandmother and her siblings – in that environment, the majority of them born in the 1920s and share-cropped with their parents. They had a good understanding of core values, of saying, “Okay, we want to work for ownership, and we just don't want to squander it all and give it away.”
So my family has always been about the business of the farm. Even as siblings started to go their separate ways and escape oppression and the Jim Crow South, what always brought us back was the farm.
Now the role of my family, as elders, is moreso as advisers. You're not going to see my family members out on the tractors anymore. … But having them as advisers, as liaisons throughout this industry and using their relationships that have been cultivated over 80 years has been a great deal for me. Coming into Martin, [Tennessee,] and saying, “Hey, I want to grow a hemp farm,” there was no resistance from the community. I spoke with the mayor about the opportunities of growing hemp and why hemp is important. I spoke with him about how our goal is to create job opportunities and educational opportunities within this small town. … And so having the elders being able to pass down these relationships with other farmers in which we can work with and teach them how to cultivate is immensely important to our journey of what we're trying to do.
ZM: How did you learn the ropes of being CEO of Gold Standard Farms?
JH: In 2018, when the Farm Bill passed, I learned about it, and that was the first real conversation with my family about the elders getting older and wanting to find someone to take over. And it was still going to be strictly like soybeans and corn until we really found out how the hemp industry was going to take off.
In 2019, I did a year of R&D myself, and I went to present everything to the family. That's when my aunt was saying, “okay, I'm going to train you up as a CEO and show you what I've been doing for the last 50 years.” That was just a history lesson within itself. So in 2019 I got the CEO-in-waiting title of the family. In 2020 once we signed with Viola, they were like, “Hey, we're retiring. We're going to Florida. You got it now.” …
I just embraced it. You spend your time thinking that you're going to do something else growing up; I thought I was going to be a baseball player or sports agent. I did sports management for a minute, and I wasn’t fulfilled. But once I got into this space and learned the family history even more than I had, I just felt like I was the perfect person for it, and this was my purpose to be home and take care of the farm for as long as I can and make sure we get another 80 to 100 years out of it.
ZM: What was it like having to assume the role of CEO of your family company in 2020 of all years?
JH: It was tough because, for the most part, all of the things that we had planned for 2020 – we were going to go to this conference all of that was shut down. So then you have to worry about sales. How am I going to sell this product that a person can't touch, feel, or see? So it was tough, but for me, I was used to operating at home from [previously working in] the sports world. For any other company that was founded in 2020, it gave us an even playing field in a place where I felt like I can execute from operating at home and selling.
I think the biggest part was just labor. People were getting sick, outbreaks. We had one, we had to shut our indoor facility down for like three weeks and scrap everything that was in there and do deep sanitation and cleaning. It was trying.
But I'll tell you one thing, my great-aunt told me this, she said, "If you can get past this, you'll be fine.” That was my biggest thing – I was moreso worried about the elders in my family and keeping them safe and not having them around on the farm. So I think that was probably the most trying thing, the lack of time spent with the elders and also making sure that they're safe and out of harm's way with all of this stuff going on.
So for me, as tough as this industry can be, I wear a badge of honor that we're still in business because a lot of companies folded. So our thing is just piece by piece, staying afloat and understanding when to pivot and when not to pivot. I think that's where you start to see the hemp block come in. With that oversaturated market of hemp or CBD products, we wanted to pivot into still providing a better solution, but this time on the sustainable side. And I think that eliminates a lot of the tough years or tough trials that we might have seen in 2020 and parts of 2021.
ZM: What is the biggest challenge in maintaining a hemp cultivation?
JH: The financial aspect, the cost. You want to do things right; you look at about half-a-million dollars on 20 acres done right. And that's every year if you choose to do it.
That first year was an outdoor year for us and cost us a lot of money. It was in the pandemic. We also had some flooding in certain areas because it was a crazy rain, it rained for about eight days. You have to have capital if you're going to do it on a large scale. But then you have to also have people who understand the process of cultivation, that are in-tune with certain diseases that the plants may have or may not. So it's an educational component in a space that's relatively new now. With hemp and people acquiring licenses, we don’t want to treat it like a hobby; it's a business.
One of the main things with cultivation is having growers and geneticists that actually know what they're doing that can identify certain things with the plant and can solve problems. And in small town USA, that's tough. But we've got a great group of growers and geneticists that have a true passion for it, and they're able to teach my friends and family that work with me about the plant. And we all have a true passion.
So I guess it would be financially, you have to have money to play in any game, especially in this one, to compete. So that comes with a variety of different things, whether it's marketing after you cultivate. We still have to market these products, we still have to meet with smoke shops and do little sessions for them to try it out and quality control. So it's a financial responsibility that can turn into a financial reward, but emphasis on the responsibility. You have to have capital to play.
Our biggest thing is making sure that we always stay afloat to take care of Gold Standard, and from there, Gold Standard will take care of us, but you have to make sure that the baby is always provided for.