Pitchman Anthony Sullivan Opens Hemp Farm to Grow CBD for Daughter with Rare Disease
Anthony Sullivan has made a living selling cleaning products on television, but his latest venture has him getting dirty in a way he couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago.
The celebrity pitchman, who became famous for starring in OxiClean commercials with late friend Billy Mays, recently opened a hemp farm in the vast green fields of Plainfield, Vermont. His 116-acre field, MontKush, was born out of Sullivan’s curiosity and need to find a replacement for the powerful drugs his 8-year-old daughter, Devon, had been taking to manage symptoms of a rare genetic disorder that has affected her development.
“She’s turned out to be this great little girl. She has an amazing personality and she loves everybody,” Sullivan, 50, tells PEOPLE of his daughter. “But she has a lot of aides, and she has an army of people to help her.”
Over the years, Sullivan says, new symptoms have created more and more challenges to maintaining Devon’s health.
“The minute we solved one problem, another problem would present itself,” he explains. “Devon had a terrible time sleeping, very difficult time eating. Her balance [and eyesight were] off… and about two years ago, she started to have seizures, seizure-like episodes.”
The family’s neurologist prescribed Devon an anti-seizure medication to help mitigate the episodes, but Sullivan says he soon decided its side effects were too much for his girl.
“It just wrecked her body, and she lost 20 percent of her body weight. She was absolutely exhausted, and she just lost her personality,” he recalls. “I get really upset when I think about it.”
Sullivan says anti-seizure medication affected Devon so much that he was ready to stop giving it to her and quit work to be with his daughter full-time in case she had an episode.
“Unless you live in that world, it’s very difficult to relate,” he says. “And I really can empathize with any parent that has a kid with special needs.”
With their options seemingly running out, Devon’s mother suggested they try CBD or cannabis to help with her seizures.
“I was like, ‘No way. We’re not going down that road.’ Then I kind of slept on it, and there was just no doubt in my mind that I’d try anything other than that anti-seizure medication,” Sullivan says.
Short for cannabidiol, CBD is a non-intoxicating chemical in the cannabis plant. CBD only contains 0.3 percent THC, the chemical that causes someone to experience a high.
So far, the FDA has only approved a version of CBD for two pediatric epilepsy conditions, Dr. Kevin Hill, an addiction psychiatrist and Director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told PEOPLE in March.
Many people take it for medicinal purposes, such as for treating anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and depression — though, CBD’s effects are still up for debate, the New York Times reports.
“It’s an extremely promising compound and there are a lot of studies that show its potential,” Hill said, before adding, “While pre-clinical or animal studies show CBD may have anti-anxiety properties and may be antipsychotic, for the majority of uses, there is not a lot of evidence.”
Some CBD businesses have been warned by the FDA for the use of unsubstantiated claims, such as asserting that CBD can treat pet anxiety or cancer.
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Sullivan began administering CBD for Devon’s symptoms and soon her seizures were under control. Two months after being off the anti-seizure medication, Devon’s weight and personality came back, he recalls.
Around the same time late last year, Sullivan visited Vermont with a friend who took him to a hemp farm he owned. While Sullivan initially thought nothing of it, once they arrived, Sullivan says his life was forever changed.
“I got out of the truck, and it just hit me. I don’t know what happened. I had a moment of clarity, or an epiphany, standing in the middle of this field,” Sullivan recalls. “It’s tranquil, peaceful, magical. All of a sudden you walk into these fields, and as far as you can see is a sea of hemp. And it smells amazing, and you start thinking about wellness, what this plant can do from a wellness perspective.”
That moment sparked an idea in Sullivan’s mind — that growing hemp was how he’d spend the next chapter of his life, even if he hadn’t farmed anything before.
“Call it a midlife crisis. Most guys buy a sports car — I end up buying a hemp farm,” he says, jokingly.
But Sullivan was on to something. According to the Times, the CBD industry is projected to hit $16 billion in the United States by 2025.
Garden City plots part of hemp testing
Hemp has long been known as an effective product for a number of commercial uses, but because of the weed’s relationship with marijuana, the crop was not a legal option. But that changed in 2018, when as part of the USDA’s 2019 Farm Bill, research and development of the crop received the government’s OK.
On June 22, Show-Me Hemp in Garden City held an open house talking to farmers, builders and others about the potential uses for the once-outlawed crop. Garden City was one of six sites from throughout the state, joined by some local universities, to serve as test areas for growing a variety of hemp strains.
Bill Cook, with Show-Me Hemp and a spokesman for the Missouri Organic Association, said, “We are excited to be a small part of this research. We are learning so much more about the uses for hemp and I think when we get things figured out, farmers are risk takers, they will try this.”
One of the main uses currently for hemp is CBD oil, a product Cook said he has come to depend on.
“I developed arthritis. I started taking the CBD oil three years ago and I don’t think I would have made it without it,” Cook said.
But CBD oil is only one use highlighted during the meeting Meghan Fox, the executive director at Show-Me Hemp said, “The attitude is changing because people are being educated. People didn’t realize all of the products that can be made from hemp. It can be used in biodegradable plastics and it is strong enough that it can be used in computer microprocessors. It can be used in livestock feed, to make paper and to make clothing.”
One of the people demonstrating uses showed that hemp can be processed to be a building block or insulation with some major advantages over traditional insulation: the hemp product would be fire and bug proof.
Leading the hemp research in Missouri is a team from Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Babu Valliyodan, a professor of molecular biology and genomics heads up the team and spoke at last week’s meeting.
“You can grow hemp anywhere. It is now grown in 48 states. In 2020, we started a pilot experiment with 30 varieties from throughout the world. We are looking to see what grows best in different parts of the state,” Valliyodan said. “The biggest problems are stabilizing the genetics and educating law enforcement because hemp looks and smells so much like marijuana.”
The difference in the plants is the amount of THC produced. Marijuana has a THC level of .3 (three-tenths of 1 percent.) Hemp contains .2 or less. Valliyodan said a key of the local research is to consistently get the level below .1.
One problem farmers may face is hemp can develop the higher THC level on its own, usually when conditions are hot and dry.
“When that happens, you have to destroy it,” Cook said.
Early in the use of CBD, some product with higher THC levels slipped through.
Dale Ludwig, CEO of the Midwest Hemp Association, said, “Early on, many drug dealers were involved. They just slipped over to the CBD. But we have gotten the bad characters out of it and now the crops are being grown by good hardworking farmers.”
One of the main problems hemp growers face will be marketing and processing the product. Unlike Europe, there are few facilities in the U.S. to process hemp. Lincoln University has testing facilities, but no processing at this time.
Valliyodan said that may change quickly as major corporations such as Boeing, Tesla and Proctor and Gamble are looking at ways hemp may be used.
“I think we will see more commercial acreage in a year or two,” he said. “That’s why it’s important we educate people now. Hemp has been growing for 80 years and we have been trying to burn it out, but it keeps coming back so we know it is
resilient. We need to learn what works best for the different uses and develop those types of crops.
The Show-Me Hemp facility, 54 State Highway F, includes a museum which explains the history and uses of hemp and a retail shop containing a variety of hemp products including CBD oil and clothing.
The public will be invited back to the facility Aug. 24 to see the final results of the test crops.