A local family-owned hemp growing business is beating the odds in a tough and oversaturated market.
Deborah Morton, the CEO of MOR-hemp, says the secret to their success is that they are a family business.
“Everybody that’s on the team is family,” Morton said as she listed various family members and the roles they serve within the company.
“I’m pretty much the master grower,” she explained. “I moved down here just to do the farming.”
Though originally from Washington, D.C., Morton learned the ins and outs of farming by working summers on her family’s tobacco farm here in Halifax, on land that has been in the family for more than a century.
“I had no experience of farming. But I used to come down every summer to help my relatives with the tobacco. They were farmers,” she recounted.
Deborah Morton’s son, Stephon Morton, serves as president and COO of the company. He reports that the family’s decision to enter the hemp industry occurred after his mother’s generation inherited the family farm.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do with the land, so my cousin was like, ‘let’s try industrial hemp,’” Stephon Morton recounted.
After explaining the differences between hemp and marijuana and assuring Deborah Morton that they were not proposing growing illegal or psychoactive products, Stephon Morton and his cousin talked the older generation into getting into industrial hemp.
“I’ve always wanted to get into farming, to have a farm. So to me, I was excited about it,” he remembered.
Farming is a family tradition for the Mortons — one that runs deeper than Stephon’s generation realized.
“My great-great grandparents purchased the land in 1906,” Deborah Morton stated, referring to the family farm.
As recounted on the MOR-hemp website, sharecroppers Paul and Alice Morton acquired the land, establishing a basis for economic freedom and self-sufficiency for the family — a legacy which several generations of Mortons now get to enjoy.
Indeed, the land where Deborah Morton used to spend her summers, helping out on the tobacco farm, is now the place where she resides and operates her family business.
“It’s important to know your roots and where you come from,” Stephon Morton asserted.
“As we started doing this, we started learning about the family that we still have down there,” he continued.
As she is the “master grower,” Deborah Morton is the only family member who relocated back to Halifax — a move that put her closer to her father. After retiring from a career in the federal government, she has fully embraced her “retirement career” growing hemp.
“The main thing with the Virginia area is that you have to find the right seeds and right strands that will grow in this area,” she explained.
Despite a peak of public interest in the local hemp industry in 2020 when Golden Piedmont Labs — Virginia’s first large-scale CBD-extraction and hemp processing plant — opened in Halifax, local growers have found the market to be unstable since the pandemic.
Stephon Morton envisioned a different approach for MOR-hemp to distinguish their business within a crowded market.
“The CBD side is very saturated. We’re kind of late in that game, so let’s do something different, that’s up-and-coming,” he pitched to his relatives and business partners.
Though the family executed an indoor grow for CBD extraction in 2019, they also grew 1 acre of hemp for grain and fiber the same year. By 2020, they decided to pivot exclusively toward the grain and fiber direction.
While the total acreage of hemp farming in Halifax has decreased overall since 2020, the Mortons increased their operation to 3 acres in 2021, and repeated that same success this year.
This success is largely due to their partnership with WhiskeyWrite distillery in Waynesboro to produce a line of hemp-infused alcohol spirits called Tusk.
“The one thing that I love is that everything is Virginia-based,” Deborah Morton noted.
“We provide the seeds and they ferment it into the vodka and the rum,” she explained.
The name “Tusk” is an homage to Deborah Morton’s mother, Mary Morton, who collected elephant figurines and images.
“We wanted to do something to honor my mom, so we created our logo to honor her,” Deborah Morton explained.
Tusk currently features two hemp-infused alcohol beverage products, a white rum and a vodka.
“We have distribution in Virginia, California, Florida and D.C. We are in the ABC stores in Virginia,” Deborah Morton listed.
Although some ABC stores throughout the commonwealth — including the one in South Boston — carry Tusk on the shelves, Stephon Morton reports that customers can special-order the products from any Virginia ABC location.
“People in 42 states can order [Tusk] online,” Deborah Morton added.
Connoisseurs of spirits regard Tusk as unusually smooth due to the infusion of hemp. It is no surprise, then, that the unique products have already won several awards, including the 2021 Sunset International Silver Medal for Rum, the 2021 Sunset International Bronze Medal for Vodka, and the 2022 Bronze Medal for Vodka at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition.
Stephon Morton is hopeful that the success of Tusk will yield greater expansion of MOR-hemp, both in terms of acreage and products.
“The spirit is the product that we’re using to get ourselves off the ground,” he stated.
“We want to get into textiles. We’re currently looking into doing hemp yarn,” he continued.
He noted as well that MOR-hemp already offers smokeable CBD flower, and that this offering is likely to expand in 2023.
As for Deborah Morton, she is more than content to bask in the successes of Tusk, her family’s heritage and her budding retirement career.
“It’s just been amazing how this product has really been doing well, and how it’s getting out there — people really love it!” she exclaimed.