FARGO — In the “Wild West” that is America’s hemp industry, Kia Mikesh is one of the sheriffs.

Mikesh is the CEO of Adams Independent Testing, which dove into testing hemp in 2019 after growing it was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. The firm also tests medical marijuana for the state of North Dakota.

The company, in the industrial park on Fargo’s south side, has about 300 customers planted around the United States.

It’s a small company with five employees, though it does share some employees with North Dakota Grain Inspection. Mikesh is also vice president of NDGI and along with her brother Mark Adams (quality assurance manager) for the third generation of that family-owned grain testing company. Adams is also COO of Adams Independent Testing.

Mikesh sat down with The Forum recently to talk about her firm and the prospects looking ahead with the growth in demand for CBD and other hemp and marijuana products.

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Question: Who are your customers and what do you do for them?

We do all through the spectrum. We start with farmers and producers who are growing hemp. And we will test their stuff during the growing season to make sure they don’t go hot (Have THC levels above 0.3%. THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces a "high.") ... and they don’t have to destroy their crop

We test their products before they sell it to a processor for a lot of different contaminants to make sure it’s suitable for sale.

We do a lot of testing for processors before they go through the effort of processing, and they’ll test during processing to be sure everything remains in order. And again, at the end, if they were trying to sell their product to another place (for further refinement).

And then we do testing for formulators, who are formulating different products, and also for retailers who want to just do double-checks on the certificates of analysis that they’re getting for products they receive in their stores.

So, kind of from start to finish.

Q: Is the hemp industry growing?

It feels as if there are fewer farmers, but those that are continuing to do it are growing. There are a few processors in the state. I think there are a lot of people experimenting with different things to see how it best fits within our state.

Q: Is it easy to grow hemp?

Not at all. It takes a lot of trial and error, it seems like.

The plant just kind of absorbs things around it. Unlike other plants, it will take the heavy metals or pesticides or nutrients (or microtoxins) and takes them all in. It can be tricky, because things that aren’t problems in traditional row crops could be problems in hemp.

Microbial testing to avoid yeast, mold, salmonella or e coli. And terpenes (which give hemp an aroma and taste profile). So we can test to say if it is going to have more of a hoppy aroma or flavor to it, or citrus, or pine.

An Adams Independent Testing worker tests a sample in the company's lab in September 2021. The Fargo firm tests hemp samples from around the nation and for North Dakota's medical marijuana industry. (Photo courtesy of Adams Independent Testing)
An Adams Independent Testing worker tests a sample in the company's lab in September 2021. The Fargo firm tests hemp samples from around the nation and for North Dakota's medical marijuana industry. (Photo courtesy of Adams Independent Testing)

Q: What are the possibilities for growth?

For North Dakota specifically, there’s a lot of people looking into hemp grain and hemp fiber, as well. Those are very different from cannabinoid hemp. I’ve seen a lot of research being done around that. … That fits a lot better into the traditional row crop style that our farmers are used to.

Over in Minnesota, though, they seem to be growing a lot with the CBD (cannabidiol) side, and the processors, and things. But as a nation, it seems to be every year they’re refining it.

I don’t know if it’s been explosive growth from what we see, but everything is getting more refined.

It was just such a new industry. Everyone in the hemp industry just calls it the Wild West, basically. So, things are just getting smoother, and more professional.

Q: How well are you positioned for testing if marijuana is legalized?

We do the testing for the medical marijuana program for the state of North Dakota. So, that is something we’re familiar with. The testing (needs) between the two (hemp and marijuana) are identical. The main difference between hemp that’s grown for cannabinoids and marijuana is the THC level. The rest of it is basically identical. All the tests are the same, which is really nice.

Q: What’s your favorite part about hemp and marijuana testing?

That it is such a new market you get to write the rules.

I’ve been in the grain industry my entire life and the rules are written there. And I really love that. But it’s really fun working with a new industry that has such similarities, where there can be a large knowledge transfer between the two. So it’s really fun for us to be able to have input into these things and help figure out how to solve problems.

Q: What is your product?

Our product is essentially a certificate of authenticity (COA). When people send us their samples, this is what they get at the end of our report.

Because it is more of a Wild West out there — there has been a lot of fraudulent activity — we do a lot of social media and blog posts on different tricks and tips on how to make sure that the hemp you’re buying is off of a valid certificate. ... There are a lot of really wonderful people in this industry, but there are also the people that are just trying … to chase the money, and they’re not actually devoted to the industry and making the industry better.