In 2015, while much of Colorado was fixated on the emergency of legalized recreational marijuana, a group of Florida entrepreneurs picked out a large plot of ground in western Pueblo County to focus on a different kind of cannabis plant: hemp.
Today, SanSal Wellness and its Veritas Farms is thriving as one of the nation's first and largest centers for hemp oil cultivation, extraction and product formulation focused on the wellness industry. Hemp offers similar wellness properties as marijuana but is largely free of THC that gives marijuana its high.
Located about 10 miles west of Lake Pueblo off of Colorado 96, the 140-acre complex employs about 40 workers, grows tens of thousands of indoor and outdoor cannabis plants a year and manufactures a variety of cannabinoid-based products under the Veritas Farms brand name.
The products include tinctures, vegan capsules, infused edibles, lotions, salves and vape oils.
Cannabinoid, also known as CBD, is a group of chemical compounds found in both hemp and marijuana that can affect the body's systems to impact inflammation, pain, appetite, stress, sleep, movement and other body functions. Veritas Farms' current focus is on about 18 of the compounds.
The company's mission is straightforward: Grow the highest-quality organic hemp for wellness uses; identify the health benefits of the various CBD compounds; distribute those compounds to consumers through its products; and track the results to improve on quality and efficiency.
“We are constantly testing our products and trying to learn new things about the cannabinoids,” Veritas Farms general manager Rianna Meyer said during a recent tour of the complex. “There are so many. Right now, we're studying about 18 of those … We're really trying to identify (CBD) uses and what it's good at.”
There's also constant internal and third-party testing to ensure THC levels are negligible. Any violation would jeopardize their operating license.
All of the farm and manufacturing operations take place at the Pueblo complex.
The marketing and sales units operate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the home of Veritas Farms' holding company, SanSal Wellness Holdings, a publicly traded company (stock ticker SSWH) launched in 2013 by Alexander M. Salgado and Erduis Sanabria.
SanSal originally eyed the Pueblo site for a marijuana operation but switched after determining hemp “fit their model, their thought process and their desires,” Meyer said.
In Pueblo County, the company found an ideal growing climate of warm days and cool nights as well as a receptive audience among the area's government and economic development leaders, many of whom were divided over legalized marijuana but who are in agreement in support of legalized hemp.
The choice of Pueblo has not been entirely free of challenges, said Meyer, who relocated from the Denver area to oversee an operation that started with a single makeshift office building and now includes a large greenhouse, acres of fields, a high-tech lab and several other production buildings.
Worker recruitment and retention is a little difficult due to Pueblo's smaller size, she said.
“We're glad here and we're glad we're part of the community. I think the biggest challenge that we run into is the quality of life in Pueblo and wanting more to offer the employees that we want to bring in,” she said.
She urges the community to continue its work to bring more attractions to Downtown and elsewhere.
“It's really a broad range of people we employ and, again, finding people who want to come to this community is probably more of a challenge. I know we're working on it. There's some great projects going on around our community to improve that attractability,” she said.
Meyer applauds a decision by the Pueblo Economic Development Corp. to add the hemp industry to its list of industries with the most potential for future job creation in the area. Beyond wellness products, hemp is used in a wide variety of other products, including rope, textiles, paper and building materials.
“If you look at our area and the possibilities, I think the sky is the limit,” she said. “It's like any new industry. There are opportunities everywhere and what you make of those opportunities is going to get you where you need to be.”
Not all hemp-related startups pan out.
In 2015, Pueblo thought it had scored a major jobs coup related to hemp only to see the project fizzle. A startup company, CBD Bioscience, drew statewide headlines with its plans to open the world's largest hemp oil processing facility at the former Boeing plant at the Airport Industrial Park, but the project never materialized.
The sting from that loss didn't last too long: soon after, the Boeing building was purchased by fast-growing Big R Stores for its new warehouse and headquarters office. Meanwhile, Pueblo has continued its efforts in hopes of landing other hemp manufacturers.
The hemp and CBD oil industries are still very much in their infancy, Meyer said.
This winter, the industry kept a close watch on the the 2018 farm bill now set for passage by Congress. The bill re-categorizes hemp as an agricultural product instead of a controlled substance to lift restrictions on hemp research and sales. Supporters of the change included Colorado's legislative delegation.
The bill's passage “will dramatically change the landscape of the agricultural hemp industry. Veritas Farms is excited and well-positioned to capitalize on the retail distribution, digital and traditional advertising, investor, educational and clinical opportunities that will arise from this much-needed legislation,” Derek Thomas, vice president of business development for Sansal Wellness, said in a statement.
Meyer said one of the expected changes would be an uptick in the needed additional clinical research into the wellness benefits of CBD oil. Companies such a Veritas Farms could more easily partner with public universities and tax-supported laboratories on such work, she said.
Until then Veritas Farms will stay focused on its own research and product development.
“My whole entire team puts so much care into what we do,” Meyer said.
“It's an amazing team that I get the privilege of working with every day and ensuring our quality and consistency in our testing — and putting out an amazing product. Everyone is just very passionate of what they can do and the prospect of what CBD in the future may help,” she said.