The old proverbial phrase, used in times of crisis, goes something like this: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
For the Howard family and New River Botanicals, their lemons-to-lemonade approach to the coronavirus crisis has been to make hand sanitizer to help meet the need for one of society’s most in-demand products during the pandemic.
“It was mostly because we couldn’t find it anywhere,” explained Kelley Krahn — who, along with her twin brother Kaleb Howard, their parents Steve and Marla Howard, and their spouses Nathan Krahn and Kailee Howard, is one of the integral parts of Twin K Enterprises and the New River Botanicals operation.
Between their various business operations — which consist of a construction company, a concrete plant, a steel erection company and a campground catering to ATV riders, in addition to New River Botanicals — the Howard family employs more than 200 workers. Marla Howard wanted both her family and their extended family of employees to stay safe during the coronavius outbreak.
“My mom has probably reacted just like everybody else has during this,” Krahn said. “She wants everybody to stay healthy, especially the family and the employees. So we were looking for bulk hand sanitizer and it was nowhere to be found. With 200 employees, we had to do something. We decided we might as well help out while we help out.”
So, New River Botanicals turned its CBD production lab in the former Team Apparel building in Huntsville into a manufacturing operation for hand sanitizer.
“We had all the equipment there — the bottles, the machines and everything to do it — so we were just like, we’re going to have to do this,” Krahn said.
Almost immediately, the company saw prices for the raw materials that go into hand sanitizer skyrocket, as America suddenly became a hygeine-conscious nation.
“From the first time we bought everything we would need for one week until when we got ready to buy for the next week, it jumped 55 percent,” Krahn said.
Undeterred by the rising costs, the Howard family stuck with it, and continues to make, bottle and distribute hand sanitizer.
“It’s just something that’s pretty scarce right now,” Krahn said. “We needed it for not only personal use but for our business, and nobody could get their hands on it. We determined that the best thing we could do is make it ourselves.”
Among the places utilizing the New River Botanicals hand sanitizer are local banks, the TVA, and some local doctors offices. Krahn said the company has the capacity to produce 450 bottles per day, and “it’s going as fast as we can make it,” she said. Just Monday, a Knoxville corporation that runs a large chain of convenience stores and truck stops called, looking to place an order for 6,000 bottles in each size that the company is producing.
“As long as we can get the bulk materials, we’ll continue to make it,” Krahn said.
The story behind New River Botanicals
New River Botanicals was born in 2019, when large fields of hemp began to spring up on the Howards’ farm along New River, south of Huntsville. It was a brand-new business venture for the family — and a brand-new industry for Scott County, at least on a scale of that magnitude: producing CBD — the chemical compound derived from cannabis that has taken the holistic health industry by storm.
The federal government passed a farm bill in 2018 that legalized industrial hemp production in the U.S., opening the door for CBD operations like New River Botanicals.
“It was more Mom and Dad than it was us,” Krahn said of the family’s decision to get into the CBD business. “I was a little reluctant just because it was so new, especially here in Scott County. But we’ve always been looking for something to do with the farm and we figured, ‘Why not?’ Mom and Dad both take CBD and even give it to our dog. So it was basically just, let’s see if we can make it work and it’s another hat that we have put on.”
CBD — short for cannabidiol — is the chemical compound of hemp. It imparts feelings of relaxation and calm, but it is not intoxicating like its cousin THC.
THC, or 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, if you want to get technical, is the major active ingredient in marijuana. But hemp plants contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Instead, CBD is the major active ingredient in hemp, and as New River Botanicals explains on its website, it does not produce a euphoric “high” or psychoactive effect.
“CBD is the non-psychoactive portion of the plant, so what that means is you won’t have any effects like euphoria,” explained Junella Chin, an osteopathic physician and cannabis expert, for health.com. “You won’t feel sedated or altered in any way.”
CBD has been used used to treat everything from back pain to arthritis to even cancer. It’s not approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use against medical issues, but is instead used as a natural supplement by those who swear by its healing qualities. It’s sold in a variety of stores, including pharmacies, and is produced as topical products, oral supplements, even edibles.
In Year 1, the Howards planted 80 acres of their more than 600-acre farm in hemp — some 75,000 plants in all.
“It was a lot,” Krahn said. “And it was a lot of work. We knew it would be labor-intensive. But we didn’t know it would be that labor-intensive.”
But growing the hemp was just the start of it. The next step is drying the plant and extracting the CBD. That requires a full-fledged production facility. So, the Howards purchased the Team Apparel building, which had been for sell for some time, and began the process of setting up a lab.
“You know us, we can’t just stop at growing or that first step,” Krahn said. “We have to go the whole nine yards with it.”
Today, New River Botanicals has a fully-functioning extraction facility. It extracts CBD not just for its own operation but for other farmers, as well. Last year there were about eight other farmers in Scott County who grew hemp, all of them small operations — less than five acres.
The extraction side of the New River Botanicals operation got started just last month. Right now, the company has the ability to produce 30 liters of CBD a week. If that seems like a lot, it is. One liter will make more than 300 bottles of CBD oil.
It has quickly grown into a large operation. At the peak of last year’s growing and harvest seasons, New River Botanicals put to work more than 100 laborers in its fields — though not all at one time.
“Some of them were teachers who wanted something to do in the evenings, some were high school students,” Krahn said. “We had some students from Scott High who were into the agriculture stuff, so it was a great learning experience for them, too.”
Currently, there is a staff of 10 manning the operation at the extraction facility and lab, including a Knoxville pharmacist who went to work for New River Botanicals because he was interested in the CBD industry. He has a crew of six working under him, while the lab has three people in it.
New River Botanicals is producing CBD oils, topicals like body butter and lotions, and will soon begin selling gummies.
“It’s a very versatile thing,” Krahn said. “Not only is it good to ingest, but it’s good for your skin. There are a lot of products that are coming out.”
New River Botanicals offers its products for sale directly, including through its website, and also wholesales. There are a number of local stores that are carrying the company’s products.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed the small business scene completely, but that’s not entirely bad news for New River Botanicals — and not just because the company was well positioned to make the quick switch to hand sanitizer production. Perhaps now more than ever, Americans are focused on their health.
“More people are looking for holistic methods like CBD,” Krahn said. “Everybody is health-conscious now, and rightfully so. We don’t go to a gas station anymore and not think about touching the door handle.”
After a busy 2019, the Howard family had big plans for New River Botanicals in 2020 and they’re hoping they’ll still pan out.
“It was a lot to do (last year) but now we have a handle on how to do it and how to do it efficiently,” Krahn said. “We were hoping 2020 was going to be a lot easier than 2019. But now everything is in limbo, including all farming, not just CBD.”
Still, the fields will soon be ready for planting — if the virus outbreak and America’s economic outlook allow it.
“We’re still processing hemp and looking forward to this year’s grow, as long as everything goes okay with the economy,” Krahn said.
This story is the April 2020 installment of Business Spotlight, presented by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page 10 of the April 16, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.