Remapping the Journey
By Jill C Schoeniger
After a serious cycling accident, Steven Groff ’87 put a new spin on the adage “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” When life handed the then-orthopedic surgeon lemons, he made cider and beer — and now hemp. He calls it his “second act.”
His second act began abruptly on a beautiful fall day in 2011. Groff was pedaling through a 20-mile bike ride near his home in Dallastown, Pa., when a car traveling 45 miles per hour struck him from behind. The accident landed him in the trauma unit where he had been a surgeon most of his career, specializing in spinal and joint-replacement surgeries. “I had an unstable cervical fracture, which is the scariest thing,” he explains. “I was millimeters from being a quadriplegic.”
In that regard Groff says he was lucky. He had neck and back surgeries and after several months recovered enough to return to doing surgery. “But it was never the same,” he says. “I didn’t trust my hands as much and my neck hurt when I was doing surgeries.”
For many years Groff and his wife, Julie, who live on a 77-acre farm where they raised their two children, dreamed of one day doing something with their property. The accident fast-tracked their timeline. “I had a great run as a surgeon. We had just opened our own orthopedic hospital, OSS Health, and things were going well,” he says. “If the bike accident hadn’t happened, I’d still be doing that. But life brings you changes and you roll with it.”
Wyndridge Farm, their home since 2000, became their focus. The couple leveraged the bucolic setting and 120-year-old barn to begin a hospitality and beverage business. They started by obtaining a winery license and making hard cider. Then they created an event venue for weddings and corporate events by renovating the barn and adding a restaurant and craft brewery.
They now have craft beer and cider production on site and sell their beverages up and down the East Coast. In these operations they employ more than 100 people. The farm, within a few hours’ drive of millions of people, has become a Mid- Atlantic destination.
For a while, they felt the hospitality and beverage business would be enough. But when presented with a unique opportunity to grow their business, they jumped at it.
Riding the (hemp ) train
Throughout this transition, Groff has appreciated his Albright education: “My liberal arts background has been tremendous. It wasn’t just straight science. I took a lot of philosophy, art history, and economics classes. It’s just a broader knowledge background of the world around us.”
Interestingly, it is his science background that has once again paid huge dividends in their most-recent venture. In 2014, Groff first became interested in hemp and cannabinoids (CBD) when he realized hemp was going to be legalized.
“I came to understand the hemp plant — which is different from marijuana, but both are cannabis plants — and some of its capabilities,” he explains. “Hemp has thousands of uses for industrial materials, textiles and beauty products.”
After industrial hemp was declassified in 2018, the interest in CBD products skyrocketed. Groff sought out his alma mater as a partner to explore this new area and help Albright students get in on the ground floor in researching the exciting field. By partnering, the two parties could obtain a dual permit to research and grow unlimited amounts of industrial hemp.
They came up with a plan that includes Albright students doing internships and taking part in entrepreneurial pursuits through this unique opportunity.
When they received the permit just after the New Year, there were only about 80 others who were not limited to growing 100 acres. But soon thereafter the rules changed and “pretty much anyone could get a permit and grow as much as they wanted,” according to Groff.
However, the new rule also meant the need for processing hemp could go through the roof. Ever adaptive, Groff shifted to focus on the processing side of the industry. He became the first U.S. installer of a Canadian-made HempTrain machine, designed to mass-process hemp. With the machine ready to go in Red Lion, Pa., he has already contracted in nearly 2,000 acres of hemp from other farmers.
“The demand for this is fascinating,” he says. “We have already had inquiries from all over the country wanting to buy the byproducts.”
It’s really come full circle for Groff as he has returned to his original calling of helping people through science. “There are a lot of unknowns about the health benefits of cannabinoids, and there are also so many claims as to its benefits,” he says. “I want to use my science background to help by being a voice of reason.”