In early 2020, Mitchell Karstetter’s new side business was just beginning to pick up steam.
The Quincy, Wash., farmer and his family had been growing hemp on about 40 acres for the past year, looking to capitalize on the growing demand for CBD products with a venture called Columbia Basin Hemp. But then the pandemic hit, and the Kartstetters had to start looking at backup plans for their stalled inventory.
“COVID just shut down the retail side of the industry because people weren’t out and about anymore, seeing your products in the stores,” said Karstetter, who also owns cattle and grows apples and row crops. “The price of hemp also crashed almost overnight, so we were forced to re-evaluate our business plan.”
Columbia Basin Hemp gradually became Columbia Naturals, which combines processed hemp with ingredients such as arnica and helichrysum to produce a specialty line of topicals.
The company’s three signature products are infused with CBD oils to relieve pain and inflammation. River Plunge features menthol crystals, eucalyptus and spearmint, creating a numbing sensation like BioFreeze; Farmer’s Helper combines menthol crystals with a warming oil called capsicum; and Lavender Breeze is a gentle gel made with fresh lavender that is used to moisturize and relax muscles.
Karstetter’s wife, Katie — a former sales representative — took on the topicals side of the business and has helped the family make something positive out of a difficult situation.
“We needed to develop an end-product that we could package and sell in retail stores and online, because the hemp didn’t end up being the cash crop we had hoped it would be,” he said. “We have come up with a really good product at a really good price. But right now, we’re just trying to break into the market wherever we can.”
Getting the Columbia Naturals name out there has been even more of a challenge, he added, because federal law prohibits companies from advertising “CBDs.” Companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook don’t permit ads that use that moniker, even though CBD products contain less than 0.03% THC (the hallucinogenic compound found in the cannabis plant).
Another regulation slowing up the process is that CBD products cannot be sold in Washington state’s licensed Initiative 502 marijuana retail stores, unless they are also a licensed I-502 company. The only places Columbia Naturals can sell its healing topicals are online at columbianaturals.com, in retail stores, and through word of mouth.
“Everyone who uses the lotion absolutely loves it, but it’s been hard getting any traction over the past year since we can’t advertise online,” Karstetter said. “But we’re expecting things to pick up the rest of the year. Stores just aren’t taking many new products right now.”
With all of the uncertainty of the past year, the family feels fortunate that it has been able to fall back on other revenue streams, such as apples and cattle. Karstetter said he knows a lot of farmers who never saw their hemp-growing plans materialize. But he’s also optimistic about a market recovery.
“A lot of people were thinking this could be a big money-making opportunity, and the past year hasn’t turned out that way,” he said. “I feel bad for some of the local guys who took a chance, but I think things will rebound. There’s a huge opportunity that’s right there waiting, so once we get through this time, I think it will be an entirely different story.”