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Hemp Takes Hold With Pennsylvania Development Partnership

Lori Daytner, of Disability Options Network

Hemp Business

Hemp Takes Hold With Pennsylvania Development Partnership

Lori Daytner, of Disability Options Network, is working to advance the hemp supply chain in her hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania. DON is making plans to build a regional decortication facility. Daytner spoke to Let’s Talk Hemp from New Castle.

How did your career lead you to hemp?
I was born and raised here in New Castle. I am three-quarters Belarussian and one-quarter Ukrainian but never had the chance to learn to speak either language. However, I had an opportunity to go to Moscow for a three-month stay to learn Russian, so I went to what was then the Soviet Union in 1990. The Soviet Union fell apart a little over a year later and things exploded with the economy. It was chaos in the ‘90s in Russia. Markets were just opening up and supply chains were nonexistent. I started working at hotels, which led to a job working with a restaurant company and I ended up staying abroad for 20 years! When I started there were two restaurants. By 2006, I had become the CEO, we completed a $100 million IPO, and reached nearly $500 million in system-wide sales with 367 restaurants (including franchise operated) in nine countries and 33 cities. With that job I lived in Russia and then in Prague for seven years. It was an amazing experience.

Then, in 2016, I quit working and went home because my father was getting older and needed care. A couple of years later, after my father had passed and I was climbing the walls from boredom, a friend gave my resume to Chris Lloyd, the founder of DON (Disability Options Network). He liked my experience, including the caregiving, which most people had dismissed as just a gap in my resume. He does a lot of economic development here and he had always wanted to do something for our farming neighbors. Chris had learned about hemp and secured four licenses in 2019. He also studied the supply chain and decided to shoot for bringing large-scale decortication to our area. We think it will rejuvenate this region and give farmers a choice for a rotation crop.

I absolutely and fully embrace the potential of hemp. It’s a thrill to be doing something that will bring good, safe jobs for people. I see a total economic opportunity in so many different ways and it’s good for the planet. I am so excited to work in a developing market in the U.S., even with the bumps and hurdles. It’s fascinating to me.

Tell us about DON and the hemp projects.
It stands for Disability Options Network. Our mission is to deinstitutionalize the care of disabled and older people and support them to live in their own homes. DON provides in-home, non-medical personal attendants and other programs for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Then we have a number of other entities, and whatever they earn all goes toward our mission of disability rights advocacy.

DON Processing is the hemp project. It is a for-profit start-up and we are pre-revenue. We know it’s going to be a long road. We did a ton of due diligence about the global hemp market. We got every growing trial report from every U.S. university we could find. Luckily, I speak Russian and I can get by in Czech and read Polish, so we also got many reports from throughout Europe. We talked to folks who have equipment in all different places. We still believe we should go for a large-scale decortication facility here, but it’s not time yet for our region. The market has not developed enough for us to push the green button. We are working on securing funding and exploring off-take agreements.

To develop the supply chain, we had to invest in farmers learning to grow hemp, and so we launched the DON Hemp Test Acres Program in 2019. Our first was a disaster. We were very new. We got the only seed we could. By the time we procured the seed, only one of the four farmers we had lined up could make the planting window. We planted too deeply and thinly and the next day unexpected torrential rain hit. We learned a lot. It was four acres of hemp that grew only 3-4 feet tall and was almost all weeds. Chris, Philip Berezniak (Chris’ business partner), my husband and I went out and hand harvested it. We got enough for one bale about a yard square. I have it in my office and it’s a constant reminder — a talisman — to improve.

We truly did. In 2020 we expanded to six farmers in both Pennsylvania and Ohio. The following year we applied for grants to support the Hemp Test Acres program. We were awarded grant funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for the seeds for the program in 2021 for the farmers growing in Pennsylvania. DON Processing funded the seeds for the participating farmers from Ohio.

Chris and Philip sent me to the first US Hemp Building Summit in Ketchum, Idaho, in late 2020. I heard all this great stuff about these materials and in my naivete I’m thinking, “Hey, we build accessible affordable housing – we could build a hemp house!” Little did I know.

We did it. I got grant money for the Project PA Hemp Home. We had a lot of great partners and advocates like Cameron McIntosh of Americhanvre and Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears from the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. Alex Sparrow, who wrote the book on hemp building, consulted long distance. Tim White of Texas Healthy Homes gave input. Dr. Ali Memari and his team from the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC) were great collaboration partners, conducting thermal performance testing on the structure.

We typically retrofit or build one-story homes for DON consumers, but we were constrained by the grant. We had to acquire a house that was in our budget and within the project area, so what we found and could afford was a small, two-story home. We designed the ground floor to be barrier-free and accessible.

For the hemp house it was one and done for now. We are now in partnership with PHRC to explore projects using precast panels for commercial and residential building. Mostly we will focus on bringing the decortication facility to the region.

What is this new partnership about?
The new grant is from the National Science Foundation in their Regional Innovation Engines program to develop what has been named the Pennsylvania Industrial Hemp Engine. We are part of a collaboration that was awarded $1 million over two years as a planning grant to further develop the industry. It was super competitive. My hat is off to Vytal, which spearheaded the whole application. They were incredible. They collaborated with all kinds of industry stakeholders and legislators, and we have a number of universities in the group.

DON is a partner and I was brought on to be a team leader in partner development and stakeholder engagement. The goal of the project is funding to develop bio-based products for green building and other sustainable products. It’s very broad. The caliber of people involved is amazing – a real Who’s Who in PA hemp from seed to research to everything.

What are your goals for the rest of 2023?
I will be working on the grant. We are just getting underway, so there will be a lot to do getting started with partners and stakeholders.

I also serve as the secretary of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. And I will continue to focus on research and finding funding for our facility. Mainly, I will continue to help the hemp industry move forward in any way that I can.

I am going to South Dakota at the beginning of August to share our farmers’ experience at a gathering at the Complete Hemp Processing decortication facility that recently opened. I will be engaging with end users of hempcrete for more research on our processing center.

We have never tried to be first; we want to do it right. It will hurt us and the industry if we do it wrong. We cheer for processors who are up and running every day. Networking and collaboration are so important in this industry. It is going to take all of us. Anybody who is thinking about being territorial about this is not understanding the big picture.

The mention of companies and other enterprises in news stories and Q&As does not imply an endorsement by Let’s Talk Hemp or any business relationship.

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