TORRINGTON – From the outside looking in, GreenTree Ag’s facility on Highway 156 looks like one of any number of agriculture and ag-adjacent facilities in Goshen County.
The large garage doors open to reveal some mostly familiar-looking equipment – a forklift, an elevator, a combine. They’re tuned to a steady hum as a pair of workers empty large sacks of a green plant into the system and guide it through the equipment. Nothing seems different about this operation from anything else going on in the county.
But it is different.
Goshen County’s first hemp processor sits in the shadow of two monolithic symbols of industries that have failed. It’s just a cattle feedlot away from the abandoned Wyoming Ethanol facility, and in plain sight of the Western Sugar Cooperative processing facility, which eliminated most of its local workforce in 2019 after the company chose to upgrade its Scottsbluff, Neb. facility.
But, if what GreenTree is doing takes off the way Justin Leoffler, the company’s owner, and the Goshen County Economic Development Corporation hopes it does, it could be the economic revolution the county needs.
“With everything going on in our area – you’ve got sugar beets that have never recovered at all, and those guys have lifetime contracts,” Loeffler said. “You look at MillerCoors and the barley market, corn in general – it’s a one-trick pony. You have sugar beets, you have corn that goes into ethanol, cattle, feed – that’s all you use it for. This is a crop that can be grown so that if one contract isn’t viable, there are a hundred more. It doesn’t leave people out in the cold.”
Every part of the plant
GreenTree’s processing facility, which Loeffler called a “mini-facility,” is an example of that. The facility is engineered for CBD production. CBD is a health supplement, usually taken as an oil, that has a wide spectrum of health benefits.
But, Loeffler said, every part of the plant is used to create not only ingredients for CBD supplements, but useful by-products, as well. The plant can be used for thousands of products from textiles, to hemp concrete, to paper goods. As long as there’s a buyer, it can be pretty much anything.
The facility produces two kinds of hemp flour, the stalks and stems can be used for fiber and the seeds can be either regrown or used in food products.
“What we’re doing is we started off with a mini-facility here in Goshen County, in Torrington,” Loeffler said. “It is our hope we can educate people and they can see this is not ‘The Devil’s Lettuce.’ It is a viable product and we’re making things out of it.
“It’s kind of like a buffalo. Indians used every aspect of the buffalo – we’re using every aspect of this plant. It’s not like we’re just taking it for the flower and leaving the residual. The residual is worth something. In proving that here, our hope is that people are going to buy into this and see how this works on a very small scale. When we go into the bigger side of things, we have an infrastructure piece that will actually suffice all of the growers in southeast Wyoming.”
And when it’s time for the big facility? That’s going to be in Goshen County.
“I think right now our main objective is to prove that it can be grown first, and then when it comes to the planning time period, GCEDC and myself and a select few others – we’ve been rolling around some ideas – but it is going to be in Goshen County,” Loeffler said.
The mini-facility can process 500 to 1,000 pounds of hemp an hour. It’s enough to process what Loeffler has planted in Wyoming – a few fields in Laramie County, a few acres in Wheatland – and that’s just the start.
“Hopefully, when we’re up and running with the new combine, we’ll be able to do 8,000 pounds a day,” Loeffler said. “That facility can suffice anything we’ve got going, as long as it’s running five days a week in 10-hour shifts. Anything we’re growing here in Wyoming, we can put through that plant. It is our hope that more people will start growing it and that is how we graduate to a larger set-up.
But first, it’s important to make sure the plant will grow in Goshen County. Loeffler used a box drill to sow Goshen County’s first hemp field on a 20-plus acre quarter pivot near Huntley on June 5. Just a few days later, the rows were visible above ground.
It’s a test plot of sorts, and it’s destined to be used for fiber. Loeffler said he plans to bale it and has a buyer in Illinois willing to pay $250 a ton. He expects to harvest about four tons per acre.
It’s a small step into a new market.
“It only became legal a couple of years ago,” Loeffler said. “We’re starting to see that slow progression of people saying ‘hey, we can build this out of hemp. We can do this with hemp, we can do that with hemp.’ We just need to grow it.
“Everyone thinks we have to have these big contracts before we can do anything. Those days are over. None of these big companies are interested in financing your theory. What they’re interested in investing in is an area that can produce. If we can take all of this data that we’re collecting, and we can show that in southeast Wyoming and in Goshen County, we can produce four-plus tons per acre – if we take that to those folks, they’re going to say ‘we know those folks can produce.’”
When it’s proven that Goshen County can produce, it could be the beginning of a new era of economic diversity, GCEDC Business Development Director Brayden Connour said.
“It has the potential to truly diversify the economy in Goshen County,” Connour said. “It’s something that makes money, and that money is turned how many times on our local community? It exponentially grows.
“I think anything you can do to supply the town with more jobs, and you can raise the median wage, then we’re on track. If we can get that big facility operational – this is a scale and we can do this on a large scale – and we can employ those people and run it 24 hours a day and have 10-15 people per shift, and management level people – I think this thing, we’re on the ground level of something that hopefully could be great for Torrington and Goshen County. It can be big for everybody.”
And it can be bigger than GreenTree.
“This thing is bigger than one company,” Loeffler said. “GCEDC, Eastern Wyoming College, the community, local farmers – this has been a collaborative effort.”
A valid option
Cody Alps farms near Yoder. It’s a family operation with his father and grandfather, and when he looks at GreenTree’s hemp field and processing facility, he sees diversity for his own farm – and possibly, security.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it works out,” Alps said. “I think it’s going to be great in this area with how hearty and durable it is. It’s a matter of getting to the point where it’s as common as corn and alfalfa.”
According to Loeffler, most local farmers would be able to move into the hemp market relatively easily and affordably.
“The thing that excites me about being able to utilize growers with this particular crop for fiber is that there is no infrastructure change,” he said. “Everybody has access to a box drill. Everybody has access to a swather or a baler. Everything can be put on through the pivot or with somebody coming in and putting commercial fertilizer down. We should be able to get input costs on this below $550 an acre.”
If Loeffler’s estimation of four tons per acre holds true, even selling the bales for $250 apiece nets a $450 profit per acre. According to USDA data, corn is sitting at $3.09 per bushel and nets $417 per acre. The input costs vary, but it’s not unusual to break even – or even run in the red.
“My goal, and I think it’s everybody’s goal, is that once we prove this can be done it’s not only going to be good for our farming community, but when we start putting in that infrastructure, lots and lots of jobs,” Loeffler said.
Connour said his goal isn’t to make people abandon corn and other more traditional crops, but to provide a viable option.
“I think just having an option is what makes it interesting,” he said. “We’re not telling people to not grow corn or alfalfa, but at least this is something that makes it so if you want to diversify your operation, you can. The hope is we can source a contract or contracts so it’s vertically integrated and horizontally.”
There is a stigma tied to the crop because of its similarity to marijuana, another cultivar of cannabis sativa with a higher concentration of the psychoactive ingredient THC. While Wyoming’s marijuana laws are some of the strictest in the United States, Loeffler said he’s been welcomed into the community. GreenTree was founded in Cheyenne but moved to Goshen County because of that reception.
“We moved to Goshen County because of GCEDC,” Loeffler said. “This is one of the first entities in the state that has shown their willingness to work for a project like this. They have been absolutely phenomenal in welcoming me into the town and providing a lot of insight.”
There’s also a willingness to try something different. Alps said he’s the hemp advocate on his family’s farm but faces some resistance from his elders.
“It depends on which one of us you ask,” he said. “If you ask my grandpa, he’s going to say, ‘not at all’ and that we should stick with what we’ve been doing for years and what he’s comfortable with. He knows there is some risk.
“My dad is going to be more moderate and in-between, and I’m thinking it’s good to add a little more diversity and add another crop, so if hail comes through and wipes out our corn and alfalfa it might be able to make it through.”
But Alps said he’s excited for the future of hemp. After seeing GreenTree’s grow site and processing facility, he said he’s beginning to think about trying his hand at becoming a hemp farmer.
“It makes me wonder when I can get started,” he said. “I don’t want to jump the gun too quick, but next year it could be a possibility and we actually have a half pivot that is going to have to be worked next year.”