Monte Vista, Colorado
Industry: Cannabis & Hemp
Products: Hemp harvesters and decorticators
VP of R&D Corbett Hefner oversees the innovation-informed evolution of heavy machinery that harvests and processes industrial hemp.
The United States Department of Agriculture made a short film in 1942 called Hemp for Victory, encouraging American farmers to cultivate cannabis sativa for the war effort. The film shows the crude hemp harvesting taking place back then in Kentucky, as well as the separation of the stalk's outer fibers (used for cordage and cloth) from its woody, cellulose-filled interior, a process called decortication.
A couple of Formation Ag's promotional videos incorporate black-and-white footage from Hemp For Victory, before segueing in brilliant color to shots of the company's modern-day, heavy machinery in-use, with heavy music blasting in the background. One video declares, "Isn't it about time for something new?"
That's what Formation Ag set outs to do: provide a resuscitated, American hemp industry with updated machinery that's designed to plant hemp; harvest the flowering buds and stalks of the plant; separate seeds from plant material; and decorticate the stalks. "We want farmers to be successful," says Hefner of his company's innovations.
"We make three harvesters," says Hefner, adding that, since much of this modern-day hemp cultivation is geared towards the production of CBD within hemp flowers, "All of these [harvesters] are built around the ultimate goal of protecting the [flowers' CBD-laden trichomes] -- not disrupting or damaging the trichomes, so that we can maximize the yield per acre for the farm. That's the key to this thing for the farmer: What's your yield per acre and what's your potential revenue per acre? Damaging that trichome can really affect your gross revenue."
At its 60,000-plus-square-foot production facility, Hefner says the company utilizes, "CNC plasma cutting tables, CNC press brakes, mills, lathes, welders, and then assembly equipment" to manufacture its equipment. Its products are in use across the United States, Canada, and Europe (including Russia). "We're trying to get into the South American markets," adds Hefner.
Business increased 700 percent in 2019, and Hefner expects it to increase 400 to 500 percent, this year.
The company is at work on an updated version of its existing decorticator, which presently separates fiber from the hurd at a rate of "one to two tons per hour," according to the company's web site. Hefner says the soon-to-be-released machine, the Genesis, will produce two-foot-long lines of hemp fiber and "comb and slightly carve the material out, so that it's more suitable for textile, or other kinds of refined textile, manufacturing." According to the company's projections, the machine will be able to process up to five tons of hemp bales per hour.
Ask Hefner when he first heard the term "hemp decorticator," and he replies, "2016." That's when he was hired by Power Zone Equipment in Center, Colorado. In 2019, Power Zone spun off its hemp-machinery division, and rebranded it as Formation Ag. The new company is based in Monte Vista, where Hefner, 60, attended Sargent High School (its football team is named "The Farmers").
He later went on to study bio-agricultural science at Colorado State University. But, at school, Hefner didn't learn about the medical or industrial uses of the hemp plant. "I didn't know much about it, until I was approached to take on this project," says Hefner. "It's really amazing what this plant can do for people."
Hefner now attends international expos and trade shows, discussing his company's equipment, as well as hemp agronomy, genetic selection, and harvesting techniques.
"I've always been an innovator," he says. "I like going into a new venture that allows me to be creative -- and helps [solve] people's problems. . . . That's the fun part for me: figuring out solutions to things that people think are not possible."
Challenges: "We not only moved, we rebranded," says Hefner. "So getting our message out there, and the awareness that we changed names, but we're still innovating the same product."
Opportunities: In addition to hemp seed being used for human consumption, Hefner says, "People are working very diligently on getting this accepted as animal food, which I think is a huge opportunity for all agriculture -- having hemp as a viable food source for animals."
Needs: "Capital investment and entrepreneurship," says Hefner. "Developing demand for [hemp] fiber. And then consumer awareness when it comes to the hemp plant, as far as the health and wellness benefits for the population of the U.S. . . . They just need to understand it's hemp, it's not marijuana. It's completely separate. It doesn't have any of the psychotropic properties that marijuana does, and it's safe to consume, as far as we know."
Still, Formation Ag maintains a strict no-drug policy -- and since some CBD products contain cannabinoids or trace amounts of THC that might cause a positive test result for THC, employees are, for now, advised against using CBD-containing products.