In this new episode of the Dusty Jobs Podcast, Donovan talks to Corbett Hefner from Formation Ag. Formation Ag specializes in making equipment for processing hemp. They talk about the budding industry of hemp and everything hemp can be used for. They also talk about the importance of being nimble and being able to adapt for new ways to process hemp. To learn more about harvesting and processing hemp visit Formation Ag at their website: https://formation-ag.com/
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Dusty Jobs Podcast from Imperial Systems. Industry knowledge to make your job easier and safer.
DONOVAN: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Dusty Jobs Podcast. We’re glad to have you guys with us today. Today, we have a really interesting guest: Corbett Hefner of Formation Ag. How are you doing today, Corbett?
CORBETT: Excellent. How are you guys?
DONOVAN: Doing good, doing good. So, Corbett’s going to be here talking to us about the hemp industry, right?
DONOVAN: Now you guys are based out of Colorado, is that right?
CORBETT: Right. Monte Vista, Colorado, up in the mountains.
DONOVAN: There you go, there you go. So, Corbett how did you get started in this whole interesting world of agricultural products? And where did you get started and how did you end up here?
CORBETT: Well, I’ve been in agriculture my entire life. My family was in the fertilizer, and we had some farming, little bit of farming on the side, and I’ve always farmed. My degree was in Plant pathology so, I’ve always had an interest in agriculture in one shape or another, but I was in the flexible packaging industry, plastic mesh and fresh produce bags for 25 some odd years. It was in Texas and Wisconsin, for the bulk of it, Wisconsin.
And we decided to move back to our home area to be by our family in in 2016, 2015, I don’t remember now, but anyway, about that time I started with Power Zone Equipment/Power Zone agriculture in mid 2016 as Engineering Manager/Hemp Person because Power Zone Equipment made petroleum fluid moving products, you know, large industrial pumps, the watering for mine saltwater kind of things, huge pumps.
And in 2015, when oil went kind of south, they were looking for other things to keep their staff busy and one of the salesmen said, “Hey, you know this hemp thing is just starting to take off where we live in Monte Vista’s, in the San Luis valley of Colorado, which is a very large agricultural area. I think there’s 150,000 – no, it’s more than that 150-170,000 square acres of, might be square miles, of farm ground here it’s all irrigated farm ground. This is a very large potato area, second or third largest potato area in the country. And hemp, because of its water consumption, is a really good rotation crop to go into. Potatoes, Coors barley is grown here a lot of other vegetables like spinach, or lettuce, some carrots, etc., quinoa, a little canola. Hemp fits into the rotation strategy because of it’s very easy on water. It does not need a lot of water. It’ll do whatever you want to eat it, but it doesn’t need it. And that’s a major issue in our area.
So, in 2016, they hired me on as that managing position and I was supposed to do a little double duty. There for a while was about 80% engineering and 20% hemp and that made it about 6 weeks when CBD and the hemp industry just exploded.
CORBETT: We had out of the engineering manager thing and then started the just only focused on hemp equipment
CORBETT: We built the cortication first because we thought that was a bottleneck in the industry because we fully, and from since the onset of the industry, thought the grain fiber herd aspect of the hemp business is where the bigger uses are. And definitely from and acreage standpoint and a viability for helping farmers be a little more autonomous that this was the approach.
We got into CBD harvesting because we found there just wasn’t a very good CBD harvesting solution, so we built the clean-cut harvesters for whole plant, horticultural style farming. We have the clean strip machine for bud type harvesting when you’re on narrow spacing for growing CBD, it also works for hemp grain. We’ve got the…
DONOVAN: Corbett, I’m going to have to pause here because you’re telling me so much information, I’m not catching it all. Hold on. So, this so the first thing you guys developed was what because I’d love to know. So, the first thing you guys built was the cord machine.
CORBETT: The cortication equipment – separating the fiber from the herd.
DONOVAN: Gotcha, okay.
CORBETT: Right. That’s where you get your opportunity for textiles, cordage, or cellulose, or insulation.
CORBETT: Fiber herd is your animal bedding, hemp tree, you know for the two big ones that people are probably most familiar with it which is why I’m talking to you guys…
DONOVAN: Yeah, yes.
CORBETT: …because when you decorticate, you create an enormous amount of dust.
DONOVAN: Gotcha, gotcha. So you have a big dust plume when you do that process, right? So that is the first machine you guys worked on. So, what was the next thing? I heard you say it, but I’m still trying to learn about this.
CORBETT: CBD harvest.
DONOVAN: CBD Harvest.
CORBETT: So we went from the cortication, we were probably five years early on the cortication. We’ve never stopped working on the cortication.
CORBETT: Yet long line fiber, which is the goal of our equipment and very good cooling herd, we’ve never stopped working on it the whole time. But we got into CBD harvesting because we have a custom machine shop and people asked us to build it and we did. It works well.
CORBETT: We’ve developed, basically now, we have four different harvesters.
CORBETT: Four, two that are more focused on CBD. One for grain/CBD and now we’ve got a dual head one that we’re building in conjunction with Bish Enterprises that mount on any combine that allows farms to basically dual crop grain and fiber and do the harvest at one pass without having a dedicated very expensive monster of a machine. We can implement this machine on pretty much any piece of equipment, take it off of that combine, and let it go back to any other harvest crop that it wants to do without modifying the machine.
DONOVAN: So, it’s just a new combine head that’ll go into any combine, but it’s good for harvesting. Now is that just for the fibers or is it harvesting the CBDs? Or will it do both?
CORBETT: Grain. It’s more geared towards grain which is your…
CORBETT: …hemp parts and cold press oil seeds, etc., but underneath that grain head is the fiber head, so we’ve got this patent on this thing because it’s unique. The only approach in dual head harvesting at the moment are European and they’re not autonomous. You can’t take this head off and you can’t take the existing head off a machinery and put them back to use in other crops easily.
This one is literally an attachment for a combine, then we can collect the chaff out of the back with our grasshopper collection cards and we’ve got 20 some odd different types of machines that we’ve either adapted or engineered from scratch for the hemp industry. Whether it’s harvesting, processing, or decortication of the fiber and herd grain cleaning equipment for CBD, we can separate the flower from the stock without destroying the trichomes and we’ve got a lot of different machines. We’ve had engineer and innovate from scratch to help support the industry.
DONOVAN: Wow, that it sounds like you guys…
CORBETT: It’s a lot of stuff.
DONOVAN: Yeah, like you’ve kind of taken the process from the beginning, almost the whole way through here for someone. So, if someone is looking at getting into this, if there’s a farmer out there who is looking to get into this, they would, I mean, it sounds like you guys might just be able to walk him right through the whole thing.
CORBETT: Well, we started a consultant group and a processing group so we’ve got everything from phonetics all the way to off take finished good products out of fiber and herd that we can help collaborate with these farms and make it a viable crop for them.
We had places to take the crops so, we had to – we saw that as a necessity we had to get basically vertically integrated from seed to sale, if you will, to make the industry move forward. It just wasn’t moving at the rate that we thought it should because we want to make a lot of machinery for people because our overall goal here is to help support these farms. They needed another crop that they can get some revenue off and get a little more control over their debt and hemp was a perfect crop to do that with.
DONOVAN: Yeah, yeah, and like you said it’s definitely been a growing industry and it’s taken off. So, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges that you guys have seen that you’ve innovated to overcome? I mean, we talk about dust, we do a lot with dust here and yeah I know with you guys, you guys also help manage that process on your plant so that it’s a safe environment for the farmers and for the workers, but what are some other things that might be a challenge that you guys have just innovated and overcome?
CORBETT: Definitely having off take for these different crops. Because of this, there’s so many uses for this plant finished use, finished good uses for it. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on something to say, “This is what I’m going to go after”. So, trying to build equipment that is easily adaptable and flexible to help the customers put out the most flexible finished good they can was definitely a challenge because different genetics, different farming locations, different farming conditions, agronomy wise, you know, latitude, longitude, fertility, moisture, all can affect how the hemp grows and definitely can affect how you process the hemp stock. I’m talking stocks for dust collection. It definitely affects that so to engineer these machines to be flexible and adaptable, we’re building our systems modular. So, if you don’t need really high-end clean fiber, you don’t have purchase those machines. If you want really good controlled and milled herd down to small sizes, then we have, you know, your dust collection systems integrated with the dual vacuum hammer mills because we can grind the herd down to 20 microns, 50 microns, but the smaller you go with particle size, the harder it is to handle it. We struggle with the dust collection. I mean, it is tough. It is so small it’s tough create a draw to get everything out of the machinery.
CORBETT: Every lock can be different, every set of bales can be different so, that’s a real challenge is how do you engineer for every single eventuality. And you just camp at some point in time. We learn constantly so, we pivot constantly. The big major scenery manufacturers hate that. They want to draw something and just make it over and over again, and we haven’t had that luxury yet. We’re getting to where the main machinery design hasn’t been changing, but some of these ancillary pieces of equipment to finish it, we keep modifying changing because we learn all the time the different technique
DONOVAN: It sounds like you guys are like able to be nimble and reactive to what your customer needs are and that’s sounds like a big thing in this industry. That you know, depending on what direction someone is going to take that product you guys are able to help them come up with a solution for it if I’m hearing this right.
CORBETT: Right, we have to be flexible. That’s the biggest challenge is how do you engineer to provide a flexible platform with flexible piece of machinery to break the products down into what people are asking for. If you don’t have a home for the product, if you don’t have a sale for your goods, then it’s kind of hard to stay in business so…
CORBETT: That’s been one of our biggest challenges, really, is how do you tackle everything and do a good job at it so…
DONOVAN: Yeah, well, it sounds like you guys are working hard at it, and you keep figuring it out as it goes along here and continuing to innovate. You kind of touched on this a little bit, where do you think the future of the industry is going? What do you think is going to be the realm where…is it going to be genetics? Where you know it helps make things more universal, or more common or what do you see being in the industry? Where is it going to go?
CORBETT: I still think the fiber and herd market is probably the bigger sector of this business. Just because there’s so many uses from plastics to textiles, I mean, and everything in between. That’s the bigger acreage consumption of this crop because, you got to recognize the more acres we plan to hamper, the more acres we pull out of nutritional grain crops, you know, corn, wheat, barley, whatever it is. That’s going to help those commodity prices stabilize too and provide a little bit better of the financial future for these farms.
CORBETT: That’s probably the bigger one. I mean, everybody wants to do textiles, but that’s probably one of the harder endeavors in this this industry. We’ve successfully made fibers to do that, but we’ve lost the infrastructure in the U.S. to finish the fibers and get it into that state so we’re having to do quite a bit of work now on reinvigorating that and getting that equipment either back, or innovating because, you know, when we lost that equipment 40, 50, 60 years ago, 80 years ago, the way that machinery ran with the number of people that it took to run it, I don’t think we can duplicate today today’s market. It would be too costly. You just can’t find that amount of people anymore. Labor is becoming a very scarce resource so, to just say, “Okay, I’ll just bring all that infrastructure back”. I don’t know if that’s going to work, we just don’t have the number of people to run it
CORBETT: So, we’re going to have to do a lot of innovation in there to close this gap. Once they’ve got the fiber into a thread, then I can do a lot of different work in it. You know, from textiles, cordage, whatever the case may be, but from clean fiber to a thread. Filaments, that’s what I call him. That’s the plastic name for an individual piece, but there’s still a lot to be learned there and that’s what we’re working on right now, or I am personally. I still do a lot of the development and R&D for the company.
DONOVAN: Well, that’s great. I didn’t even know that the hemp product could be used as a plastic supplement. Is that what it would be used in, in that realm, to help eliminate the plastic? It would be more of a hemp plastic?
CORBETT: At some point in time, when people have done, on lab scale, a little isolation work and they believe they can make a resin pellet in essence and make a truly degradable plastic out of it. At the moment, when we use the the micronized product, you know, 50 microns or less, you can actually blend it into plastic now as an additive. It’s not a true biodegradable, but it’s a source reduction technique bring that lets you be a little better. I mean, you don’t have to, it be awesome if we could have 100% biodegradable in plastic today, but I’m also pretty realistic and know that it’s going to have to be a slow roll approach. Adaptation and acceptance of those products is going to take them a little bit. Performance is everything in plastic. So, if you make a mesh for filter media spun blown filter media stuff, it’s got to perform.
CORBETT: So, you know, to get people to switch from what they’re doing today that’s known and established, you can produce to a standard is one thing and putting in a substitution, that’s completely different. It takes a little while to accept that so, you’ve got to be realistic about it but it’s going to happen. I mean, there’s some sharp people out there working on that. Really excited to see what they come up with it because I used a lot of plastic, and I would love to see that happen.
DONOVAN: Yeah, I think that would just be great for everybody. Great for agriculture, great for the environment, great for everybody if we can start to find clean renewable resources that help eliminate some of these other areas that we’re struggling in a little bit right now so…
CORBETT: You bet. Paper pulp might be an easier one but it’s large scale, but I have seen 100% machine made hemp paper done in the U.S. It’s a little narrow webbed, 24 or 28 inches wide, but what the heck of a start. It’s a really beautiful style.
CORBETT: I’m excited to see what they do in the paper industry.
DONOVAN: Right, yes instead of having to harvest a tree that takes, you know, 20 to 30 years to mature, if you could have a crop that is every year, that would be another great area that we could use it in. This is all exciting stuff. We’re glad that you guys are working on it and helping innovate, not just for you know the health and safety of the people working on, but, man you’re helpful with sounds like the health and safety of everybody in the general population to with the innovation in this this world.
CORBETT: It’s all tied together.
DONOVAN: It is.
CORBETT: You can’t have one without the other. We’ve got to keep taking those steps
DONOVAN: Yeah, yeah
CORBETT: Yeah, it takes a while.
DONOVAN: Yeah, well, nothing simple is done overnight right
CORBETT: No, never is, but we’ve lost some of our patience in the country so innovation and true paradigm shifting technology takes a little bit.
DONOVAN: It does, it does, but we’re glad to have people like you guys working on it and you know that’s kind of what we do here too at Imperial is try to continue to innovate and help people like you whenever you guys are trying to make a cleaner environment for the workers. That’s what we’re doing here and it’s glad it’s great to see other people working on innovating for the health and safety of not just those that are working, but you know the overall environment and providing resources for people to be able to do that.
Well, Corbett, I don’t know if you have anything else that you want to say or touch on about you guys, but I mean I really appreciate the time you’ve given us here. Is there anything else you want to say?
CORBETT: No, you know if they wanted, if your audience was to look at what we’ve got we could go to ourformation.com website and look at some of the machines that we’ve got, you know, LinkedIn stuff. I post different stuff that that we do in the industry and you know right, wrong, or different it’s all out there. And take a look at it and if you learn something from it, great if you got questions, let us know. We’re always happy to talk about agriculture farming and farming of hemp and equipment for that and solutions for people’s problems. That’s why we’re here is to help them solve their problems.
DONOVAN: Yep, and what was your website one more time?
DONOVAN: Formation-ag.com, that’s great. You guys are on LinkedIn and probably all the social media platforms, correct?
DONOVAN: There you go.
CORBETT: A bunch of engineering kind of guys so we’re probably not as good at it as we should be, but we got it out there
DONOVAN: You guys aren’t working worried about as much the Instagram, as trying to actually come up with the solutions for the problems, right?
CORBETT: Yeah, I mean during harvest I didn’t put anything out there for probably 6 or 8 weeks. We got busy with, a couple of us got Coronavirus, and that really screwed up our harvest plan and season, so we didn’t do very good at it. Yeah, but we worry about other stuff before that, well then. Now we’re worried about supply chain issues.
DONOVAN: I think that’s everywhere, but if we are able to start figuring out some of these things with hemp, and then we can bring that all back to the states, and be able to produce those products here locally, that’ll help us as a country, as an economy too so…
CORBETT: Absolutely. There’s no reason we can’t do filter media for these your collector kind of machine. It’s going to take it
DONOVAN: There you go
CORBETT: Very viable solution.
DONOVAN: Yeah, yeah so, well, hey I just want to say thanks again for coming on today. We appreciate it.
If anybody out there is interested in finding out more about Imperial Systems you can find us on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Spotify, you can look us up on all of those things. Corbett, once again thanks for coming.
We appreciate all the information you’ve given us; it’s just a wealth of knowledge. We’re excited to see where you guys are going. And everyone out there, thanks for listening. Stay healthy and stay safe and we’ll catch up with you next time. Thanks so much, appreciate the time.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to the Dusty Jobs podcast. Breathe better, work safer.