Featured Image/Cover Image by Jacob Lewkow
Someone once said there’s no love like a mother’s love, an adage exemplified by 73-year-old Judi Porter. Judi is the mother of four boys – Allen, Mario, Tre, and his late twin brother Tai, who passed away from cancer in 2017. Today she is the matriarch of one of Michigan’s most family-oriented cannabis businesses, The Hempire Collective in Wise Township. As an essentially single mother in rural Michigan during the racially turbulent 80s and 90s, Judi tapped into her drive and determination to raise her four biracial boys. Throw in a mother’s love, a touch of chutzpah, and a lot of business savvy, and the result is the success story that is The Hempire Collective.
The Collective bills itself as a “premium medicinal and recreational dispensary in mid-Michigan,” but it’s so much more than that. Founded in 2018, with cultivation opening in December 2019 and the dispensary in September 2020. Hempire takes a craft approach to its cannabis—emphasizing growing technique, a healthy growing medium, and a constant search for the best genetic strains. Master grower Chad Paulsen pays very close attention to the plants, monitoring their progress throughout the growth cycle and harvesting only when they’re ready. He is also part of the extended family: His mother, who passed from cancer in 2001, was Judi’s best friend.
The Hempire Collective is “pastoral, rural,” says Kelly Garety, a longtime customer and director of strategic growth at True North Collective, cultivators of craft cannabis throughout Michigan. “Their customer service is friendly, relaxed, with a ‘local store’ vibe. All of them are humble and caring, from Mama Judi to Tre (one of the twins), Mario (middle brother), and oldest brother, Allen, who recently joined them full-time after retiring from teaching. Family is their motivation and they fit the vibe of their customers. Their provisioning center isn’t over-the-top new and shiny. It’s small with all you need. And when you walk in it feels really welcoming and homey.”
The unseen catalyst for all of this bonhomie is the late Tai – the one who theoretically should have the backyard fire pit, marshmallows and chocolate bars for the kids. Tai had been in the military, as were his brothers Mario and Tre. Although he didn’t fall in combat, the family believes that one of his jobs in the Army was responsible for his death. Tai worked in the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he and other soldiers were ordered to burn plastics, medical waste, rubber, and human waste, continuously breathing in toxic chemicals that have been linked to respiratory illness and terminal cancers. Like so many veterans, Tai came home from combat with P.T.S.D. In Tai’s case it was so bad Mario once saw him “instantly snap,” on a guy who cut him off on the freeway, “almost to the point that he was going to pull out his gun on the dude.” Prior to deployment, Tai was the most caring and gentle of the brothers.
“A lot of soldiers self-medicate on cannabis or alcohol,” adds Tre, and Tai did the same. When he smoked cannabis, though, the family saw changes—notably he was less aggressive. But it wasn’t until he got cancer that they saw cannabis’ true medicinal benefits.
One of Mario’s favorite memories of Tai was how he used to make “big-ass plates of food, like, at Thanksgiving.” He could never finish but he did a hell of a job trying. With cancer, though, he all but lost his appetite entirely, but not his instinct to build the mountains of food. It was heartbreaking to watch him take a couple bird bites and then stop. But when he ingested cannabis he had an appetite. “He’d still make those big-ass plates that he’d only half finish,” says Mario, “but when you look at that you think to yourself it’s a little bit of a positive in an otherwise bleak situation.”
Following his diagnosis, Tai’s health deteriorated over two years. He was fortunate to have Judi, full of love and determination, by his side. When the boys were young their father wasn’t around much, so Judi took on different jobs to put food for five on the table. In the 80’s, she did the accounting for a grain elevator. After that she was secretary to the Dean of Libraries at Central Michigan University. Then she worked for a company that sold group insurance and was integral in growing the organization from 10 employees to 100. By the time Tai was diagnosed in 2014, Judi was earning well into six figures. She spent most of it on her family, especially on experiences that will always be treasured memories.
She used to tell the boys, “There won’t be anything left when I die because we’re going to have fun while I’m alive.” So when Tai got sick, she and Tai, plus various combinations of brothers, wives, girlfriends, and children, took extended vacations across America, Mexico, and Europe.
When Tai passed in 2017, the family made a map with colored stickpins showing all of the places he had traveled before his diagnosis, with another color for after his diagnosis. They displayed it at his memorial, which hundreds attended. They made it a party and an upbeat occasion, following Tai’s wishes.
The Porters grieved the son, father, friend, uncle, and brother who had been such a beloved and integral part of their family. And then they got to work building something bigger and more lasting to honor his spirit.
When Tre retired from the military later in 2017, he wanted to be a caregiver, knowing how much it had helped Tai. The idea morphed into so much more. Judi and her sons, majority owners, were joined by two other investors; their uncle and his family, and a close family friend and Judi’s former boss, to form The Hempire Collective. After seeing how cannabis had helped Tai, she used a good portion of her retirement to invest in the business. This was at a time when no one was lending money below 19-20% interest to cannabis businesses. Fortunately for them, David, one of the partners, was able to lend the business the capital required to get licensed and to build out. Without this private equity, it might not have happened. In the beginning, it was “a lot of me and Tre pulling everything together—the paperwork required for licensing, working with our attorney and builders.” When the first plant was put in, she and Tre moved closer to Wise Township to run the business. The original building was a 6,000-square-foot empty bole barn. In the first phase of development they used only half the building, but it has since expanded to 12,000 square feet of cultivation, a dispensary, and administration space. But they did things in phases, “because we didn’t want outside investors telling us how to run our business,” she says. The family keeps costs down by doing everything themselves, only outsourcing things like legal services and cannabis accounting. Judi says, “you just have to know your limitations and recognize your strength. Every one of us brings something different to the business.” And they put all the profits back into the business for growth.
“We grow high-quality craft cannabis where our plants are hand-tended,” says Judi. They also hire locally and offer a living wage and full benefits to their employees. And they’re growing at a rate that keeps control in their hands.
But many say that their real value is what they give back to the community. Allen says the origin of that goes back to when he and the boys were young, and Judi would take in their stray friends. “She’d take in Tre’s and Tai’s strays, and our strays, so we’ve always had a certain sense of respect for people less fortunate than us.”
“We had a young woman up here, a single mom diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. Her story resonated with us. Her friends put on a benefit for her and beyond donating auction items, we donated cash and matched donations in the store to help with medical and living expenses. We wanted to promote her story so we paid for a professional video company. Our budtenders are there to help her with what she needs to alleviate symptoms,” adds Judi.
To support local kids, they buy livestock at 4H auctions in three counties, they also pass out turkeys and hams at the holidays, and donate food and toys to a local family center. They sponsor and support many events for veterans and raise money for veteran causes. They are sponsors for many Michigan cannabis events. Their employees and the community are not only treated like extended family, many of the employees have actual family members working at the business.
“We make a lot of decisions that probably some corporate person would slap our hands and say, ‘Are you crazy?’” says Judi. “But it’s just not all about the money.” It’s about family, and legacy, and something they learned from the death of a beloved son and brother.
“I think Tai would be happy with how we’re moving forward and helping other people,” says Judi.