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At Moon Flower, a hemp business run by three generations of Appalachian women, business is blooming

Jamie, Laura, Macie and Riley Queen, the three generations of Moon Flower, grow and harvest hemp on their farm in Buckhannon, W.Va. (Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post)

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Most mornings in the spring of 2019, sisters Riley and Macie Queen got up before daybreak and drove out to their family’s hemp farm in central West Virginia with their childhood friend Cayla Collett. After hours spent trimming and tending hundreds of plants with loving precision, they’d all ride together to class at the local college, hemp leaves still stuck in their hair.

“We just had to tell our professors, like, look, we’re not smoking before we get to class,” Riley Queen said. “But we are working.”

Their multitasking has paid off. Run by three generations of women from the Queen family, Moon Flower Hemp is approaching its third growing season. The company, which has four full-time and six part-time employees, has sold to customers in every state, placed products in nearly 30 stores, created more than two dozen new items, and bought space for a future bricks-and-mortar retail location in one of West Virginia’s most vibrant towns. All this, despite a fire in November 2020 that destroyed $60,000 worth of inventory and supplies and caused $200,000 worth of damage to the building, as well as a pandemic that closed thousands of small businesses nationwide.

The company has had 400 percent growth since its first year, Riley Queen said.

Online and at retail partner locations, Moon Flower sells smokable hemp products as well as CBD tinctures, teas and balms, and edibles with delta-8, a product that is made by combining CBD with an acid and that can create a high akin to that of marijuana.

The company’s growth is linked in part to the protracted rollout of medical cannabis in West Virginia. It is the slowest of any state, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C. State legislators legalized medical cannabis in 2017, but the first dispensaries didn’t open until November 2021 because of banking issues. Early on, it was unclear who would finance the industry.

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Observers have said that in places where cannabis is not legally accessible, people seem to be using delta-8 instead.

“There are multiple patients in West Virginia that have turned to the hemp industry to get some sort of relief while they’re waiting” on medical cannabis, including CBD and delta-8 products, said Rusty Williams, a patient advocate on West Virginia’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

Moon Flower also found a niche that employees say puts health and well-being over profit and focuses on the customer experience.

Promotional material often features the Queens on the farm using the products. The family turned down an opportunity to sell products in a convenience store chain along the East Coast, because they feared the items would be placed among less scrupulous ones and because they thought customers wouldn’t find knowledgeable store owners to ask questions about Moon Flower or cannabinoids in general.

With a degree in fine arts, company co-owner Riley, 23, handles marketing and social media and creates colorful, distinctive packaging.

Her sister, Macie, 22, a reporter for the local newspaper, is part owner and writes promotional material for the company.

Their mother, Jamie Queen, 47, manages the hemp farm and wholesale retail operations and has the third stake in Moon Flower with her husband, Jason Queen.

The couple have opened and closed more than 20 businesses since their daughters were young.

“We’ve had a chain of convenience stores, we’ve had a day care, we had a retail clothing store, a granite countertop shop — I could go on and on,” Jamie said. “We’ve raised them with that entrepreneurial spirit since they were babies.”

Jason, a retired longtime police officer, approached the family in 2018 about buying land for a farm, initially thinking they would focus on industrial hemp products. The Queen sisters asked their parents for some space of their own there, where they could “baby their plants,” as Riley put it, and process them for a small side business, a fortuitous move considering that the coronavirus pandemic upended their parents’ bulk CBD oil sales.

“In the way that covid kind of killed the bulk side of things, it kind of caused Moon Flower to take off,” partly because people were looking for solutions to mental health problems that emerged, Macie said.

Jason’s mom, Laura Queen, 69, had perhaps the biggest learning curve as a retired employee of the county prosecutor’s office, where she had worked with victims of domestic violence. Four days a week, she arrives at Moon Flower around 6 a.m. to make gummies, a bestseller, using a turkey baster to fill molds.

“Do I get tired at the end of my shift? Sure,” Laura said. “But just to see where it started, where it’s gone and where it’s going — it’s been just a lot of fun.”

Perhaps Moon Flower’s ace in the hole is Collett, head of research and development. Collett, 25, who is working on a master’s degree in chemical engineering at Kansas State University, took classes at Jamie Queen’s dance studio as a kid and roomed with the Queen sisters in college. At Moon Flower, she works on extraction, turning plants into oils and then into products. Her role sets the company apart from its competitors and could lead to novel product development in the future, said Don Smith II, who has been involved in the cannabis industry in West Virginia for nearly a decade.

“If you have a chemist on board, and you can ensure a consistent, high-quality product. . . . you’ve got something there,” he said.

Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University have found “an alarming lack of safety standards, accurate labeling and quality control” in the delta-8 market, which, unlike CBD and marijuana, is not regulated by any agency.

Other scientists have made similar observations. On a recent trip to Wisconsin, Marcel Bonn-Miller, vice president for human and animal research at Ontario marijuana company Canopy Growth Corp., did a double take when he saw a “dispensary” in a state where even medical cannabis is outlawed. A kid he said appeared to be younger than 18 walked in looking for something to help him focus and walked out with delta-8.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who are doing delta-8 correctly,” said Bonn-Miller, who is also a former adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. But “there are a lot of questions there for me as a consumer.”

As Collett put it, “It’s always a mystery of what is actually inside” many of these products, especially delta-8, which is sold in businesses including head shops and gas stations.

“We’re doing it in the right way,” Riley Queen said. “There is so much room for that cannabinoid to be extracted wrong, to be produced wrong. And there are a lot of bad delta-8 products.”

The Queens send their CBD oil that Collett has processed and refined in-house to a company in Oregon that creates the delta-8 product. Moon Flower has its CBD and delta-8 products tested at a lab in neighboring Kentucky and posts the results on its website. (The chromatography equipment to make delta-8 is too costly for the company right now.)

Although Moon Flower receives regular requests for vape cartridges filled with delta-8 oil, the only delta-8 products the company sells are edibles.

“We’ve worked on a [vape line] a couple of times, but there’s just no way to safely do it that we feel comfortable putting it out there and it’s not going to affect someone” negatively, Collett said.

The Queen sisters said they receive feedback every day from people who say their products have helped with anxiety, pain and sleeplessness. Their grandmother hasn’t tried delta-8 but swears by CBD to treat ailments such as general aches and pains as well as “gummy hands.” (She once made 7,000 in one week, according to the company.)

Some states, including Kentucky, have banned delta-8, but agriculture officials in West Virginia instead have taken “a neutral stance” on it, a spokesman said. The state Agriculture Department sent a letter in October notifying hemp manufacturers that “non-naturally occurring cannabinoid products” that have recently entered the state’s retail supply chain are not legal under West Virginia law. (Moon Flower does not make or sell these.)

The state’s Farm Bureau joined law enforcement officials in opposing hemp production until it was legalized, said Dwayne O’Dell, the bureau’s director of government affairs, but the organization has no public policy position on it.

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The Queens plan to open a shop in downtown Buckhannon this year and hope to be regarded as businesswomen and farmers. In the early days, they said, they often felt underestimated.

“Nobody was taking our farming seriously,” Riley said. “We probably baby these plants way more than anybody else.”

Macie agreed: “We’re out here singing to ’em.”