NEW CASTLE, Ky. – Many Kentucky farmers are hoping a new effort to establish the production of industrial hemp will help replace some of the lost revenues from growing burley tobacco, once the state’s longtime go-to crop. Following its legalization in 2014, followed by a year of development at the University of Kentucky’s Research Farm, state agriculture officials are now visiting with farmers across the state to explain the methods and risks associated with growing hemp and the potential markets for selling it.
Kentucky once led the nation in industrial hemp production. But U.S. federal legislation and taxation in the 1930s began severely limiting the nation’s cannabis production. Kentucky hemp growers were encouraged to produce hemp during World War II for its fiber. But after the war, hemp production faded. The 2014 Farm Bill, championed in U.S. Congress by the Kentucky delegation, granted the state agriculture department the authority to create industrial hemp research pilot programs. Former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer made the return of industrial hemp a top priority.
Now Kentucky’s hemp production is beginning to take off. In 2015, the state’s Agriculture Department approved 127 participants across 40 counties to grown industrial hemp, according to state agriculture officials. This included 27 hemp processors, seven universities and 90 individual growers. The initiative resulted in 922 acres of planted hemp – up from just 20 growers and 30 acres planted in 2014.
“The largest driver behind the growth has been having processors come on board that are interested in making products using hemp,” said Adam Watson of the Kentucky Agriculture Department’s industrial hemp coordinator. “We didn’t want to approve farmers who would grow the crop and then have nothing to do with it. So, essentially every hemp participant we’ve approved to date has somewhere to go – for utilization, for research, or for product development.”
To participate in the program, growers and processors must apply through the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Applications for the 2016 growing season were due in November, however processor applications may be submitted after that date.
Comer told a crowd at a September 2015 Hemp Industries Association national conference in Lexington, Ky., that he sees great potential for the crop in Kentucky. He predicted that production could potentially expand to 40,000 acres and 100 processing facilities. “Kentucky is on track to become the epicenter of industrial hemp production in America,” he said.
Hemp production already has begun in north central Kentucky, including Henry County. Several growers and buyers of hemp and University of Kentucky agriculture specialists involved in hemp research appeared for a presentation and panel discussion Feb. 2 at the Henry County (Ky.) Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service office in New Castle at a luncheon that attracted 60 participants, mostly farmers from several area counties.
Like it’s cousin marijuana, hemp is a type of cannabis plant. However, the two varieties of cannabis are not the same. Marijuana contains high levels of tetra-hydrocannabinol, or THC, which is responsible for its psychotropic effects. In contrast, industrial hemp has no more than 0.3 percent THC and may have higher concentrations of cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not produce a “high” and can have therapeutic applications.
While there are many uses for industrial hemp, such as automotive interiors, fibers, rope, oils and more, recent research is pointing toward the widespread use of industrial hemp for medicinal purposes, the panelists said. In fact, one panelist, California native Bill Polyniak, moved to Kentucky to help invest in and promote hemp as a therapeutic resource for his son, who suffers from epilepsy. When a doctor’s prescribed drugs did not help ease his son’s seizures, he turned to cannabis and found better results. Polyniak then applied for and received from the state agriculture commission permission to pursue a pilot program for CBD. His Kentucky Cannabis Co., based in Lexington, now seeks partners to help produce and market industrial hemp specifically for the medicinal market. Though while the market is still small, it is lucrative, and Polyniak said he believes Kentucky will become the center for CBD production.
Another panelist, California native Chad Rosen, moved to Henry County, Ky., two years ago to get involved in the industrial hemp production. He claims to be the first nonfarmer to plant hemp in Kentucky. Today, his company, Hemp Foods America, works with 10 local farmers to produce hemp at the Henry County Industrial Park and then markets the product to make hemp cookies and other hemp-based foods. “I moved here because of the strong legislation we’ve seen in Kentucky to support this crop,” Rosen said. “I actually believe it provides a lot of solutions to a lot of the problems that we face.”
Hemp Foods America already has 195 acres of hemp under contract with area farmers, with a focus on producing organic foods. “The reason why hemp is so exciting is because it’s incredibly nutritional,” Rosen said. “It’s got one of the most incredible protein profiles of any of the plant-based proteins out there.”
A third panelist, Tom Hutchinson, works for Atalo Holdings Inc. in Winchester, Ky. It has emerged as one of the first large companies in Kentucky to contract with farmers to produce large quantities of industrial hemp. Hutchinson discussed the burgeoning markets he believes will soon develop for the Kentucky crop. He says Kentucky already has more acres of hemp planted than any other U.S. state. Most of the world’s industrial hemp is currently grown in Canada, China and several European countries. Hutchinson credited his boss and Atalo Holdings President Andy Graves, for getting the legislation passed in Kentucky to legalize hemp research.
Hutchinson said the company is working with many farmers to help make Kentucky “a hemp state, not a medical marijuana state. There are folks coming to this state because we’re a hemp-only state, and we want to keep it that way. Kentucky has wonderful farmers. We have wonderful climate, and we’ve got what we need to grow this crop. I think it will do wonders for this state.”
UK’s top hemp researcher, UK agronomy professor David Williams, spent the first hour presenting a slide show about how hemp is being grown at the university, and the results of several trials that have taken place there in the past year. While hemp may be adaptable to growing in reclaimed – or poorly drained land, Williams said, “If you want to grow good hemp, you need good, well-drained, fertile land, just like you would want for corn or other grain crops.”
Williams ran through an extensive program revealing the results of several research trials at UK, using various varieties of hemp seed and methods. The fact that no herbicides or pesticides are allowed by law for use on hemp “could be a problem” for some farmers, Williams said. As for controlling weeds, he said, “We rely on the hemp canopy to close, so soil moisture is the key to that success. If the plant is in too dry soil and the weeds germinate first, the crop failure rate is higher.”
Williams said the primary purposes for growing hemp in Kentucky would be for (1) fiber, (2) grain and (3) medicinal CBDs. He discussed the research results and methods for each.
Farmers from Henry, Trimble, Oldham and Shelby counties attended the luncheon. They came away with an overwhelming amount of information and varied reactions to the idea of applying to grow industrial hemp.
“I think it would be a high risk because there isn’t any way of keeping the weeds out, since there are no chemicals for it,” said Trimble County farmer Tommy Burkhardt, who attended the luncheon. Burkhardt, who still grows 40 acres of tobacco in Milton, said he went to learn about the hemp program as a possible alternative to growing tobacco. But he was not sold on the viability for his farming operation.
Jerry Oak of Bedford, Ky., also attended. He came away from the presentation, saying he thought the program as it is now “is geared more for the large farm operator than a smaller one.” He said it depends on whether a farmer is growing the crop for oil, fiber or grain, but it could become expensive. “You may have to purchase the right kind of baler that makes large square bales and a front-end loader with a pallet fork. And then you have to deal with transporting it somewhere to sell it. Then there’s also the certification process that you have to go through.”
Both Burkhardt and Oak said the growing method for producing hemp oil may take hold among small farmers first, since it requires less machinery and labor.
“It’s a possibility that you may see it become profitable for a farmer with 50 acres or more,” Oak said. “But you would have to closely monitor your production per acre to ensure profitability.”
Judging from the panelists, though, it appears that the grassroots program is taking shape, and that processors and marketers are committed to helping growers every step of the way, including obtaining seed and ensuring a lucrative market for their crop. And as with most products, the future success may be indeed driven purely by demand.
Atalo Holdings’ Hutchinson believes that demand is already here, considering his company already is operating in 30 Kentucky counties, from Bowling Green to Shelbyville to Clark County. On Feb. 29, Atalo Holdings and the Kentucky Hemp Research Foundation announced that new markets for the state’s organic hemp farmers had opened with the decision by Nutiva’s CEO John Roulac of California to begin purchasing Kentucky-grown organic hemp. Nutiva is one of the world’s leading suppliers of organic superfoods.
“When you think of the opportunity for this crop, it’s vast,” Hutchinson said. “It’s about using what you have right now and hooking up with a buyer like we are. This program is still on the ground floor, and there is a lot of risk involved until we figure it all out. But I firmly believe the future for this crop looks incredibly promising, and we are committed to making this a state crop.”
• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of the RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: info@RoundAbout.bz.
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