Joe and Rebecca Pimentel plan to grow their business slowly and organically, with a strong emphasis on quality and consistency. Photos by Erica Houskeeper
Farming is a hobby now. Well-being is our business.
by Kelly Nottermann
When Rebecca and Joe Pimentel moved to Vermont, they envisioned a life of organic farming and raising their family close to the land.
âWe’ve always been passionate about the food movement and what we put into our bodies,â said Joe, who started growing commercially in 2010 from his Massachusetts property, âand Vermont had so much access to organic food. “
The couple began growing organic produce and trucking fruits and vegetables to Massachusetts. They thought that one day they could create a tipi village and offer yoga on the farm.
Then Will Raap called.
Luce Farm Wellness grows USDA Certified Organic Hemp from specific premium strains that produce high amounts of CBD and CBG.
He is the founder of Gardener’s Supply and partner of Evergreen Capital Management with Alan Newman.
A Vermont entrepreneur who also co-founded Seventh Generation and Magic Hat Brewing, Raap had an eye on the growing interest in CBD products. He wanted to know if the Pimentels would consider growing hemp.
âWill and Alan are two of Vermont’s greatest entrepreneurs,â Joe said. “We knew they were at the forefront of something big.”
It was in 2016, the start of the CBD wave in Vermont. The Pimentels agreed to do a test culture of 150 plants, which they would share with Evergreen, and Luce Farm Wellness was born.
At the time, they were one of 14 other hemp growers in Vermont, a number that would grow to over 600 by 2019.
Joe and Rebecca took to the production of CBD oil and settled on supercritical CO2 extraction. They started selling a few products to their friends and family and were blown away by the response.
Employee Lori Bullett labels hemp extract bottles at the company’s production facility in Bethel. Luce Farm Wellness grows USDA Certified Organic Hemp from specific premium strains that produce high amounts of CBD and CBG.
âWe had neighbors sitting at our kitchen table telling us they could cycle again after years of knee pain,â Joe said. âWe knew we had a product.
Committed to quality and consistency, especially in an emerging market rife with hype and false marketing claims, Pimentels have hired a professional chemist to ensure the accuracy and transparency of their labeling.
In addition to knowing the exact amount of CBD in each batch of oil, the lab also made sure that the total THC, the component in hemp that contains psychoactive properties, was consistently below 0.3%.
âWe wanted to know exactly what was in each jar, so our customers would know what they were buying,â Joe said. âIt was the only way we wanted to do business. “
Using their farming model for sale, the Pimentels started selling CBD products at farmers’ markets, but now they were selling $ 50 bottles of CBD infused honey alongside eggs and lettuce.
It was then that they received the second call that would change the course of their business. This one from a group of local investors.
To keep strict control over product quality and consistency, the foundation of their value proposition, the Pimentels wanted to move the extraction process in-house.
âWe wanted our finger on every step, from growing the hemp to the final product,â Joe said.
Additional investment paved the way for this next step.
Riding the CBD wave
In 2017, the Pimentels moved production from their kitchen to a small manufacturing facility in Bethel, Vermont.
The market for CBD products was growing steadily with seemingly limitless growth opportunities.
A global report released in October of the same year predicted that the CBD oil market would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39% between 2017 and 2021.
But being a start-up in the early days of CBD was not without its challenges.
âNobody knew what to do with us,â Joe said. âThe credit card companies canceled our card, traditional lenders like banks wouldn’t touch us – even the Vermont Department of Health didn’t know how to inspect our facility. “
With investors on board, the Pimentels have hired David Barash as interim CEO.
Barash brought extensive experience as a former executive at Burton Snowboards, Shelburne Farms and Ben & Jerry’s, and began to position the company for significant fundraising and expansion.
âHe was amazing,â said Joe, âone of the smartest guys I’ve ever met.â Barash died in 2020.
Luce Farm Wellness jumped from three to 26 employees, buying hemp from other small producers in Vermont and planning their fundraising.
âEverything could have worked,â Joe said. “But this is not the case.”
Back to basics.
âWe were organic farmers sitting in boardrooms to introduce investors,â Joe said. “It was completely unknown waters and not at all what we wanted to do.”
The Pimentels were on the verge of losing a controlling stake in the company in exchange for the big investments they needed to pay off the debt.
Janice St Onge, chair of the Flexible Capital Fund, which was on the Luce Farm advisory board, took Joe and Rebecca aside. âYou need a business coach,â she told them.
St Onge recommended Lawrence Miller, a consultant in the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Business Coaching Program, which provides professional support to Vermont companies going through critical transitions through a network of entrepreneurial coaches.
Miller also owns Five Vine Consulting and is the former Secretary of Commerce and Community Development for Vermont. Miller also founded Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.
As Joe recounts, the business was in trouble enough that Lawrence agreed to help.
âHe told us ‘you have a big hill to climb,’â recalls Joe. â’I like challenges,’ I told him. ‘Let’s do it.’ “
âThere were a lot of smart people thinking about how to move the business forward,â Miller said, âbut Joe and Rebecca were not on their authentic path and there was a lot of anger and frustration resulting from ‘a lack of communication. “
Miller’s first step was damage control.
âThe financial plan was disconnected from the life Joe and Rebecca wanted for their family,â said Miller, who facilitated conversations with investors and creditors to align expectations.
âThese were tense, high-stakes conversations,â he recalls, âbut most stakeholders were flexible when the real business terms were communicated transparently. “
From there, Miller trained the Pimentels to go back to basics.
âSometimes you have to go slow to go fast,â said Miller, who has helped the company rearrange liabilities and create a plan to pay everyone slowly.
Although Joe says the company is still in repair mode, it is “three-quarters of the way to Everest.”
The company reimbursed farmers they hired to grow hemp and cut staff from its maximum from 26 to six.
Perhaps more importantly, Miller helped the Pimentels reimagine a future version of Luce Farm Wellness aligned with their core values ââand way of life.
âThey are very much right,â Miller said. âThey have the right seed, the right growers, the right extraction process, and the brand resonates with people. They just weren’t ready to grow at this rate.
Miller worked with the Pimentels to set up the fundamentals, from accounting and order management systems to a full understanding of manufacturing costs that factor in labor and rent. He also helped them separate their passion for farming from the CBD business.
âFarming is a hobby now,â Joe said. âWell-being is our business.
With their feet under them, the business plans to grow slowly and organically.
They continue to focus on quality and consistency with new plans to bring extraction in-house, and have started investing in marketing.
Although it has been a difficult few years, Joe does not regret the ride.
âWe are super grateful,â he said. âHarvard Business School couldn’t compete with this education. “
Her advice to other entrepreneurs: âDon’t be afraid to let your priorities change and don’t wait to ask for help from someone who’s been through this before.
Miller agrees. âPersonal growth is one of the biggest limiting factors for many entrepreneurs,â he said. âJoe and Rebecca were open to change and able to integrate new information to make better decisions. “
His advice to start-ups: take a break.
âWhether it’s a few minutes to gather your thoughts before an important phone call or a weekend of reflection to think about what you want out of your life, this break can help you step back to see the full picture. “
About the VSJF Business Management Coaching Program
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provides high-quality, personalized planning, coaching and advice to business owners and their management teams to advance profitability, job creation and sustainable job development. For more information on business management coaching, visit www.vsjf.org.
Rebecca and Joe Pimentel with their Nubian Alpine goats at their home in Stockbridge.
Kelly Nottermann is Director of Communications at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.