Writer Sarah Thompson
Head & Heal was founded in 2017 out of necessity. That year, Allan Gandelman’s Lyme disease symptoms became so debilitating that he considered closing Main Street Farms, his organic farm, CSA and vegetable processor. He didn’t want to take large doses of antibiotics or prescription painkillers, so when a friend brought Gandelman some hemp-derived CBD from Colorado, he gave it a try. CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a naturally occurring chemical compound in the cannabis plant; it’s extracted from hemp, a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis containing no more than 0.3% THC, the ingredient that gives hemp’s cousin marijuana its kick.
After a month, Gandelman started to get relief from his insomnia, arthritic pain and fuzzy memory. That’s when he decided to make his own CBD to continue treating his Lyme. It was perfect timing. A year earlier, Main Street Farms had partnered with Cornell University as part of New York state’s industrial hemp pilot studies. In 2017, when the state opened up hemp farming, Gandelman immediately applied to grow hemp and process CBD oil.
Now, Gandelman and co-founder and CEO Karli Miller-Hornick are turning one of New York state’s newest crops into a thriving business that’s helping revitalize the “Crown City” of Cortland, NY. Head & Heal produces CBD oil from USDA-certified organic industrial hemp. The oil goes into tinctures (taken orally under the tongue), softgels, salves and lotions.
This is Gandelman and Miller-Hornick’s second season of hemp farming, but things are drastically different than they were a year ago when Head & Heal became the fifth licensed hemp grower and processor in New York state. Then, they made just 15 bottles of CBD tincture, selling it at farmers markets in Ithaca, Syracuse, Binghamton and eastward to Albany and Pleasantville. Soon, customers were coming back every weekend to buy more and telling powerful personal stories of relief; these repeat customers became Head & Heal’s first “evangelists,” encouraging more people every weekend to try their CBD oil.
“What we heard from customers blew our minds. It really worked for these people and they shared that,” said Miller-Hornick. Market customers weren’t the only ones blown away. Three months into their fledgling business, Gandelman and Miller-Hornick were approached by a local buyer from Wegmans at a networking event in Ithaca. A week later, Wegmans agreed to a pilot rollout in a single store. In less than a month, they pushed Head & Heal out to all of their 99 stores. Miller-Hornick said that Head & Heal is now Wegmans’ top-selling CBD tincture.
“It shows us that we have something really special and people are seeking us out,” she said.
That something is Head & Heal’s farming and processing practices, and its focus on transparency. Gandelman said hemp is extremely challenging to grow, similar to any intensive vegetable farming. Seeds are hard to find, expensive and started by hand in greenhouses. And the hemp is harvested, hung and dried by hand—a very slow, labor intensive process. Also, Head & Heal processes their CBD extract using the entire plant, preserving the full spectrum of other chemical and flavor compounds present in hemp. Larry Smart, professor of horticulture and team lead for Cornell’s Hemp Research Team, agreed that hemp is “very demanding,” requiring optimal soil, drainage and nutrition. Harvesting is also physically intense. Stems at their base can be three inches around, many plants grow seven to eight feet tall, and can have a fresh weight of 40 to 50 pounds each.
“We worked super hard to make this oil, focusing on growing and extraction to get a very high-quality end product,” Gandelman said. That hard work is paying off: Head & Heal just received USDA Organic certification for their 40 acres of hemp and all of their CBD products, one of only a handful of U.S. organic CBD farmers and processors. The company employs 25 people (and counting), is moving into a new 10,000-square-foot office space and building a second processing facility this year—all in downtown Cortland. “We’re really excited to be part of Cortland’s renewal,” said Miller-Hornick. “Another measure of our success is how many families we can support by creating a great work environment for local people.”
Since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp in all 50 states, the CBD market has exploded; in New York, there are now 550 licensed CBD hemp growers, farming roughly 16,000 acres. With so many new players, and no Federal regulations yet on CBD production, Cornell’s Smart emphasized the importance of knowing where your CBD comes from. Head & Heal tests every batch of CBD oil they make using a third-party laboratory, posting full test results on the company’s website and putting QR codes on each bottle.
“If you usually seek out local, organic vegetable farmers, it’s no different with your CBD,” said Smart. “Do your research and find neighbors here you can buy from and that you trust. Support your local farms.”
This message clearly resonates with Head & Heal’s customers. Erika Medina, manager and buyer for the supplement section at GreenStar Natural Foods Market in Ithaca, spends a lot of time helping customers choose CDB products and has visited Head & Heal’s farm.
“I was inspired by the care taken to plant, harvest and prepare the plants, and I’m happy to share that experience with our customers,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be able to offer a CBD line that is not only locally produced but locally grown, and GreenStar customers are definitely supportive.”
Sarah Thompson is a writer, certified yoga teacher, and vineyard owner in Penn Yan. She is the author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (Arcadia, 2015).
Heather Ainsworth is a regular contributor to myriad publications and serves as the Chair of the The National Press Photographer’s Association’s NY/Int’l region.