UNK student learns about budding hemp industry during summer internship

PLEASANTON – Madi Levander grew as a young professional this summer while interning at a budding business.

The University of Nebraska at Kearney senior learned all about the hemp industry during her time at Sweetwater Hemp Company, which opened a hemp oil processing facility southeast of Pleasanton earlier this year.

Part of Cruise Farms, the company has licenses to grow and process hemp, a plant that was legalized by the federal government in 2018. Nebraska authorized hemp production and the commercial distribution of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products in 2019, with the condition that THC levels not exceed 0.3%.

Brett Mayo, chief marketing and extraction officer, said the company is constantly reaching out to potential clients to let them know about Sweetwater’s products, which include tinctures, smokable flower, salves and lotions.

“It’s been hard trying to educate people,” he said. “People don’t really know about CBD in Nebraska. A lot of them are scared about it.”

Levander, who is studying business administration with a marketing emphasis, helped pitch the products to businesses across the state and secured a partnership with a pain management center in her hometown of Grand Island – one of eight locations that carry Sweetwater’s retail products.

“I thought it was cool to go through the sales process – first meeting them and figuring out how we can meet their needs,” she said. “Then you can support the sale by keeping up with them and seeing what we could do to help.”

Initially, Mayo said, Levander was a bit nervous, so he sent a more talkative employee with her the first few times. Once she was comfortable, Mayo sent her out on her own.

That experience helped Levander become more outgoing.

“Now I’m used to doing it and I like it,” she said.

To be an effective salesperson, Lavender had to learn everything she could about the company and its products before meeting with potential wholesale buyers and direct consumers.

For instance, Sweetwater has a unique system to extract CBD and other cannabinoids from the hemp plant. The company uses ice and well water that have been filtered through reverse osmosis. This process retains terpenes and minor cannabinoids, which Mayo and Levander said are good for the body.

“Everyone has an endocannabinoid system, whether you take CBD or not,” Levander said. “You have these receptors in your body that accept all of these and leveling those out is how it helps your body.”

Levander loves the CBD salves and lotions, which she uses to relieve muscle aches. She also takes oil from tinctures to help her sleep at night.

Throughout the internship, Levander applied lessons from her UNK sales classes to market the products.

“It’s been really cool to see how new products sell in a real market,” she said.

Levander also took what she’s learned about competitor analysis and utilized it at Sweetwater Hemp Company. She compared the company’s products, pricing, packaging and target markets with national companies.

“By doing that, I learned that it’s important to label products correctly and ethically. Some CBD companies with products labeled organic or non-GMO still use harsh chemicals to make their products,” she said.

In addition to sales, Levander prepared shipments using computer software and created content for the company’s social media pages. She discovered certain industry terms, and even the company logo, which features a hemp leaf, may get flagged and removed from Facebook.

Levander said she enjoyed working in the hemp industry, but she hasn’t decided where she will seek employment after graduating from UNK next summer.

Mayo would like to continue hiring one or two interns every semester. He believes the experience is invaluable for students.

“You can have a professor tell you things and educate you about it, but unless you’re out there doing it, it’s hard to figure out what you’re good at and what direction you want to go,” he said.