RI County family raises first legal hemp crop

Gage Thompson

RURAL ROCK ISLAND COUNTY, ILL. Nolan Jolly has been in his hemp field since the sun rose, as one of Illinois’ 601 first, legally permitted hemp farmers. There’s a distinct skunky aroma in the air. Sledgehammer in his gloved hands, he drives another wooden stake into the fertile ground, ready for trellis netting to secure the plants in place. His wife and partner of 11 years, Cassie Jolly, is amidst the sea of green.

Cassie Jolly with a portion of their harvest.

The days have been this way for at least two months. Cassie meticulously uproots invasive plants, her knees caked in a thick layer of earth as she wipes a pool of perspiration from her forehead, smearing mud across her face. Nolan’s business partner and lifelong friend, Shea Bieri, approaches on a four-wheeler with a cooler filled with equal parts water and Budweiser.

Jolly finished high school with ambitions of becoming a police officer. He attended Muscatine Community College for a semester and realized that this path wasn’t the one for him. “I’m too much of a hands-on guy. I like to do my own thing and there just wasn’t enough of the ‘doing-it’ going on for me. I guess I’ve always gone against authority a little bit, too,” says Jolly.

At the age of 18 he bought his first house at a foreclosure auction and flipped it for a profit, while also in the midst of an electrical worker apprenticeship. Business has always been on the mind of Nolan Jolly. “I like a good deal. We fixed that house up a lot, Cassie and I. We bought and sold a few houses that way for a few years.”

By the time he was 27, Jolly had traveled the continental U.S. with Cassie, doing electrical work wherever he went to keep up on funds. He had found himself back near his home on the Mississippi valley. He’d been working as an electrician when the notion of farming hemp first entered his mind. A friend from work had a brother who had farmed hemp in Colorado. Illinois was very near legalizing industrial hemp, and the pieces seemed to be falling together.

Once the trio had procured a plot of farmland, the time had come to get serious. Unfortunately each of the three had a drastically different vision of their endeavor and their professional bond dissolved. Jolly had never been one to give up. Determined to make it happen, he brought his proposition to the farmer whose land had been offered, the latest of a long line of Illinois farmers, Shea Bieri.

Bieri grew up on a farm and had been working with corn and soybeans his whole life. He now had a plot of land of his own that he’d been farming for several years. He and Jolly squared off two-thirds of an acre tucked back into the corn fields, the bones of their operation now in place.

Farming hemp requires the proper paperwork to be filed with state government. Cultivating an unregistered hemp crop is still a criminal offense in Illinois.

“Shea and I wanted to make sure we got the permit, it was just so vague. We didn’t know what they were going to give out, how many would be dispersed, who would get them,” says Jolly. By late spring the land had been prepared for the season. Without word from The Department of Agriculture, the days passed frustratingly by. “We ended up getting our permit at about the last minute you could to get started and still have the season work out. I think we got about the 30th one they handed out.”

With a permit, land, and a farmer, all that is still needed is seed. For the first legal hemp season, local resources were nonexistent. However, the online cannabis seed market didn’t disappoint, carrying nothing but fully lab tested strains with percentages listed.

Jolly just had to hope the THC numbers would stay low enough in the midwest soil. According to state regulation if the delta-9 THC levels tested above 0.3 percent then the entire field would have to be destroyed. Bieri and Jolly settled on four strains, and ordered them from a distributor.

With the preparations finished, the time to get down and dirty in the field had begun.

“We’re still on full manual agriculture. Our field is like a big garden, or an orchard.” Eight hundred tiny green leaves sprout from the soil in uniform rows. These things need all the nutrients they can get from the earth, so the whole field needs cleaned up at least every other day, on hands and knees, pulling weeds, or tearing a steel hoe through the ground. The plants need checked constantly for bugs as well.

Nolan Jolly with a Hemp plant.

Hemp farmers have two different routes to sell their product.

The easiest way to go is CBD extract farming. The hemp is grown, shredded and used to extract oils. Jolly chose to market quality, smokable CBD flower. This means everything is done by hand with meticulous care for every plant.

Jolly still worked full-time as an electrician while devoting himself to the plants. With all their efforts, even with all the time and money they’d put into the field, if their crop has too much THC it’s all been for nothing. All that can be done is to continue working and hope it ends up being worth it. Most of the plants had shot up to four or five feet by early summer. In addition to all the regular duties, the plants had started showing their gender, so Jolly had to check every day to see if any males developed.

“You’ll really damage your crop if you’ve got a male plant,” says Jolly. “The whole point of the operation, what you’re really after are the trichomes. That’s the part that catches pollen, mostly on the exterior but they’re throughout the buds. They’re the frosty bit that you see, the crystals, that’s where all your cannabinoids are stored. If they catch pollen they start to focus on making seed. If they haven’t caught any pollen they focus on making more trichomes.”

Jolly struck gold with his seeds and out of 800, only two male, pollen-producing plants had grown. He cut them down before any damage could be done. Some pollination and thus, some seed is inevitable when  operating outdoors. During WWII Illinois was the nation’s leader in hemp production. In those days it was used mainly for the fiber, and there was a lot of it grown. If feral hemp, or ditch weed, goes unchecked, it will destroy the crop. This meant a lot of long nights scouring the area by flashlight, carefully removing any wild species in the area.

The difficulties didn’t end with the clearing of the males. By August the angry midwestern winds had made several assaults upon the field. The largest of the plants, with trunks sturdy and thick like trees, found themselves unable to withstand the force. When they broke, the duty fell upon Jolly to handle the carnage. At least half a dozen of the plants would continue to thrive regardless of the duct tape or zip ties that kept their split bases intact.

By mid-summer many of the plants stood easily taller than six feet. Gorgeous, full buds grew larger by the day. Nothing could seem to put a dent in the freight-train momentum that was rolling along into the autumn. The results from laboratory testing had come back resoundingly well. Little to no THC was present and the CBD levels showed well above average. It was time to start shifting some effort towards harvest. The 800, six-foot tall plants would soon need to be cut down, transported, and hung to dry.

Cassie and Nolan Jolly show off some of their plants.

Then freezing rains came. In the cold and the mud, Jolly and his makeshift farm crew had no choice but to bring the crop down. The crew had expanded from just Cassie, Bieri and Jolly to a force of anywhere from two to six people, on a normal summer field day, to around 10 to 15 on the most urgent of days. A pickup convoy rattles down a mud caked path along a forest line. The beds are laid heavy with hemp as thick as Christmas trees.

They drive to an emptied machine shed not far from the plot, where hemp is hung on a network of ropes. A small fleet of city buses could fit in this building. By the end of the day there’s no space to stand up straight. Workers walk bent, weaving through the fantastic hanging forest.

The outcome, after the hanging and drying process, is a small mountain of giant bushes. Every single one of them will be trimmed, checked for any rare irregularities like an insect or mold, and sorted by quality. The most dense buds will be sold as smokable product while the rest will be sold for extraction. And the cycle repeats.

As the season ends the work of trimming and sorting continues.

“We definitely have people that would buy it now but we’re trying to hold out for the best price. It’s a new business that an entrepreneur can still get involved in,” says Jolly. “I could possibly make something of myself. There’s not a lot of that left, ya know. It’s the ‘Green Rush’, I guess they call it. We’re pioneering out here.”


*MCC student Gage Thompson worked on Jolly/Bieri’s hemp farm each week through planting, growing and harvesting. This report is taken from interviews with the Jollys and coworkers.