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Look homeward, Asheville: How Asheville Hemp Project’s Leslie Hoffman cultivates a more sustainable CBD and hemp landscape

Jun 29, 2020

The Asheville Hemp Project’s core philosophy comes from the seminal novel “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, a semi-autobiographical work based on the native North Carolinian’s early years. “Our tagline is look take a moment,” said Leslie Hoffman, the Project’s co-founder who’s a 40-year veteran of the hemp industry. “Look inward, look outward, and look homeward.”

Hoffman is a woman who tills the earth for a living, and she’s concerned with sustainability. According to her, she’s always thinking about her growing practices, and frets over how global society treats the planet. That passion for nature is imbued in the Asheville Hemp Project’s logo, a classic take on a tobacco drying barn that’s slatted and see-through.

“So you are looking inward, you have an opportunity for self-care,” said Hoffman. “You’re looking outward to natural product that is cultivated and produced in a simple and natural way, and then looking homeward, of course, is the play off of Thomas Wolfe and how important, especially in these times, we realize our own personal state-of-mind, physical health, and home.”

Home for Hoffman has always been hemp, ever since she was given what she calls “a solid indoctrination” in the history of cannabis at a young age from some of Hawaii’s premier activists. So she put on a hemp skirt and traveled the ocean, trying to spread the good word. In the 1990s, 

Hoffman was in New York City, running a non-profit organization that promoted sustainability where she recalled; she had a mentor boss who was willing to write some checks in support of drug policy reform. It was an opportunity, she said, to promote and support the advocacy community.

After that was a short stint in SoHo, at a fashion store called Planet Hemp. “I often tell the story that we had our whole line on a rack… and Woody Harrelson came in and took the whole rack, and I said, ‘And that's it. We're out of the fashion business,’” said Hoffman.

But Hoffman’s passion is growing. In New York, she pioneered local and sustainable agriculture programs and green building programs. She still wants to build a hempcrete house one day. It’s that path to led her to work for one of the original six medical marijuana companies in New Jersey. There, she did everything from build-out the grow facility to design the dispensary to run communications and more.

And then, in 2017, North Carolina opened up applications for a pilot program for hemp farmers.

As America has begun to re-examine its tense relationship with women and minorities over the past few months, activists have placed the cannabis industry under intense scrutiny. The legal cannabis trade was founded on the promise of social equality — built on the shoulders of vulnerable communities harmed by the War on Drugs — but has yet to significantly give back any of the institutional wealth it’s generated over the past 10 years.

“I think all industries — most industries — when you come to leadership and ownership positions suffer from a lack of women in [executive and ownership] roles,” said Hoffman. “I'm hopeful that there will be a higher percentage of women in the cannabis industry who are able to take leadership positions.”

Hoffman herself is no stranger to the difficulties that women face, having once been, in an earlier career, the lone female carpenter in a male-dominated field. But, in her experience, the women who, as she says, “really want it,” tend to go the extra mile.

And that’s what Hoffman’s done as the owner of the Asheville Hemp Project since 2017.

It was then that a scientist named Scott Brinkley, who was renting her house, gave Hoffman a call about the state’s pilot program for hemp. Together, they took 40 years of knowledge and turned it into one of North Carolina’s most successful hemp farms.

“What we’re trying to do is apply our intelligence and understanding of the science of the plant, how to raise that plant in the healthiest way, and also to produce effective and yet fairly simple, what I'll call unadulterated products towards a simple formulation,” said Hoffman. She noted that Asheville Hemp uses regenerative agriculture and organic practices, which includes everything from vegetative buffers to no chemicals to classic careful drying and curing processes.

Everything the Hoffman grows is 100 percent GMP compliant, because, as she says, knowing where a product comes from actually matters. It’s something that she has been personally promoting since the 1990s, and which falls in line with her ideas on sustainability.

That philosophy filters down into Asheville Hemp’s products as well, all of which have a natural, smooth, earthy flavor. Hoffman and Brinkley keep things simple, offering customers CBD Chewing Gum, Full Spectrum CBD Extract, Hemp Lip Balm, and Hemp Pre-Rolls

“Our extract is straight off the farm, blended with olive oil for the flavor profile so that it meshes well with food if that's how you want to take it and otherwise it’s just a pleasant flavor,” said Hoffman, describing her Full Spectrum CBD Extract. “We are not keen on super low quantities of CBD. I say take less of it, use less of it — dose appropriately for yourself, but I'm not actually here to sell carrier oil. I'm really focused on the benefits of the growing CBD and delivering the benefits of CBD in an efficient and cost-effective way.”

When it comes down to it, Hoffman prefers to believe in the science of it all, as well as the gut instincts of the people using CBD. That’s why she hopes to see the Food and Drug Administration apply reasonable regulations to the industry sooner rather than later — reasonable meaning reasonable to achieve. 

She concedes that there’s still a lot of science to be done when it comes to CBD, but is confident that what’s available so far proves the compound is safe. “We know anecdotally the products work and that people like them, and I think we're all pretty confident given care in cultivating and manufacturing that cannabinoids are safe,” she said. 

“The regulators have a learning curve that they're in the middle of, and it becomes political, which is unfortunate,” she continued, describing her and others' frustrations with the process of regulating the industry overall.

In the meantime, though, the Asheville Hemp Project isn’t worried. Unlike others in the space, they continue to follow the rules by not making any wild claims about CBD, thus avoiding the wrath of the FDA.  

For now, Leslie Hoffman keeps her focus on sustainability. After all, it’s the reason why utilizing an old tobacco structure is so important to her. As she said, it’s an alignment of purpose but with a new use that can utilize the old infrastructure.

“Looking inward is partially taking — appreciating yourself, understanding yourself, taking some responsibility for understanding your own body and mind so that you've become more woke,” said Hoffman. “Looking outward is not only connecting to community, but it's also largely about connecting to nature.”

And then, as Thomas Wolfe said, look homeward, angel.

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