When Justin Frederico and Ben Hall, Jr. encountered each other as fifth graders back in 1976, they bonded immediately. “He liked fishing, which I also liked, so we hit it off,” said Dr. Frederico.
The two met at Green Ridge Elementary, a rural school near Mechanicsburg, in south central Pennsylvania (USA), which Dr. Frederico remembers as “a nice agricultural area, a great area to grow up in.”
Forty years later the longtime friends have strengthened their bonds through hemp, under JustBen Agriculture, a research and development company with ambitious plans in Pennsylvania’s state-managed hemp program that’s getting off the ground this year.
Focus on farmers
One of 16 firms recently licensed to grow and study hemp in the state, JustBen wants to demonstrate the value and viability of hemp farming and processing, through research, stakeholder outreach and education. The company plans to grow, in part, around a 5-acre (circa 2 hectare) plot on a 150 acre farm that will produce food and fiber — drawing intelligence by monitoring all stages of the production process.
“We’ll gather data that will be useful for farmers to make decisions on growing hemp,” Dr. Frederico, who serves as JustBen’s president, said of the company’s outreach plans.
Along with making farmers aware of hemp’s potential, he also hopes to continue to help educate Pennsylvania’s federal and state legislators about the crop. “Teaching the politicians is the most challenging of all,” Dr. Frederico said.
Contract in-house hemp research
The company also offers contract in-house research to companies looking for insight and intelligence in a confidential environment. JustBen is currently accepting research proposals from business in the area of hemp food and fiber, and is in negotiations to conduct hemp related contract research projects related to agronomy and harvesting equipment.
Down to the science
While the company plans to study a broad range of hemp components for food, medicine, building material, textiles and composites, as the Pennsylvania regulators expand the program it will put a specific focus on terpenes, cannabinoids and other molecules, said Frederico, a PhD and organic chemist who specializes in essential oils.
“Current discussion about hemp in Pennsylvania and neighboring states has been received well when the production is for food or textile, as these products are well understood,” he said of the company’s strategy to begin with simpler components and products. “But we have other material science applications on the drawing board.”
The real farmer
Hall, who serves as JustBen’s vice president, will manage the company’s farming operations at McClure, Pennsylvania. An ex-U.S. Marine, and head maintenance technician with the U.S. Postal Service, Hall runs a goat farm with his wife Jeanne.
“Justin was always into chemistry. With him, it was study, study, study,” Hall recalls of Frederico, his middle school classmate, and now his partner in JustBen. “This project is a great match for us to help educate and improve our state.
“A return to hemp farming could serve as a shot in the arm for Pennsylvania farmers and enable state businesses to potentially save on imported hemp seed and fiber,” Hall said, noting the U.S. spends roughly $86 million importing those basic products from major supplier countries Canada and China.
In JustBen’s vision, hemp farming could get started rather quickly in Pennsylvania, where farming operations are smaller than those in the United States’ vast midwestern farm belt.
“That means smaller tractors and small combines. So many farmers have pre-existing equipment that can be easily adapted, if necessary, to begin hemp farming,” Frederico said.
Along with its startup R&D strategy, JustBen looks eventually to contract out a wide range of services to partners who want to develop processing systems and machines for the textiles and biocomposite markets, and set up hemp supply chains, Frederico said.
“In Pennsylvania we’re at the beginning of the hemp timeline, with initial interest coming from higher education and some businesses,” he said of JustBen’s broader mission. “We hope to spur interest in this versatile plant for the farming industry and industrial applications.”
Taking the long shot
But JustBen also has a mission closer to home, where he and his partner Hall still go fishing together.
“Over the years I watched the farming industry decline, and along with it the jobs,” Frederico said of the western Pennsylvania region where he and Hall grew up. “I sincerely hope that hemp can help to bring jobs back to the area.
“It’s a rather long shot,” he said, “as currently there is no hemp specific farming in the area. But from an agricultural perspective, there is a real straightforward opportunity.”
If things go according to plan with their hemp startup this year, Frederico and Hall say they’ll celebrate in a boat.