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Industrial hemp returns to Kentucky

[soliloquy id=”7802″]Finding new growth

“We realized Kentucky is the place where things are most likely to successfully happen,” says Steve Bevan, chief operating officer of GenCanna Global.

GenCanna—a company that hopes to produce food products from industrial hemp—investigated operations at times in Canada, Colorado, California, and even Jamaica. But since 2014, the upstart company has been headquartered in Winchester.

“There are different places all over the world where industrial hemp is happening, but there is no place like Kentucky in terms of the availability of people resources and natural resources, and just in terms of the gut-level understanding that we need to do this and move this forward,” Bevan says.


Cannabis leaf
Cannabis leaf. Brand X Pictures/THINKSTOCK

Like marijuana, industrial hemp is a type of cannabis plant. However, the two varieties of cannabis are not the same. Marijuana contains high levels of a compound called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is responsible for its psychotropic effects. In contrast, industrial hemp varieties of cannabis are bred to contain no more than 0.3 percent THC (some hemp is low in both THC and CBD) and may have higher concentrations of cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not produce a “high” and can have therapeutic applications.

He isn’t alone in his excitement about the prospect for Kentucky’s industrial hemp industry.

“You just can’t believe the number of inquiries that we have from farmers who want to know about this,” says Andy Graves, a Fayette County farmer who has championed a return to hemp for decades along with his father, Jacob, now 90—who himself grew hemp as a young man.

“The interest is unbelievable,” says Graves, who is a founder and CEO of industrial hemp research, development, and processing company Atalo Holdings Inc., based in Winchester. “It’s a new industry. It’s a burgeoning industry for the nation. But mostly it’s for Kentucky at the moment, because Kentucky has more acres (planted in industrial hemp) than any other state, and we’re leading the way.”

Processors are key
In 2014, industrial hemp returned to Kentucky’s landscape for the first time in roughly 70 years. Federal legislation and taxation began severely limiting cannabis production in the U.S. in 1937, though Kentucky hemp growers were encouraged to raise hemp fiber to support the war effort in the early 1940s. After World War II, hemp production faded.

Its return was spurred by Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill, championed by Kentucky’s congressional delegation, which granted state agriculture departments the authority to create industrial hemp research pilot programs.

Since then, under the leadership of former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who made the return of industrial hemp one of his agency’s top priorities, Kentucky’s fledgling hemp industry has boomed.

In 2015—just the second year of the program—the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved 127 participants across 40 counties. These included 27 industrial hemp processors, seven universities, and about 90 individual growers, resulting in a total of 922 acres of planted hemp. That is up from just 20 growers and about 30 acres in 2014, says Adam Watson, the department’s industrial hemp program coordinator.

“The largest driver behind the growth has been having processors come on board that are interested in making products (using the hemp),” Watson says. “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, explaining the research-based application of their intended project, which could include product development and marketing strategies, Watson says. In 2015, 121 of 326 applications were approved.

Applications for the 2016 growing season were due in November. Processor applications may still be submitted to the department outside the deadline.

“The long-term goal is to have a viable crop for Kentucky that gives farmers greater options,” Watson says.

At a Hemp Industries Association national conference held in Lexington in late September, Comer lauded the potential for the industry in Kentucky. Noting that the state’s production could foreseeably expand to 40,000 acres and 100 processing facilities, Comer declared Kentucky on track to become “the epicenter of industrial hemp production in America.”

Future prospects
Uses for industrial hemp abound, with some varieties grown for fiber production and others as a food source. Hemp can be used in everything from fabrics and textiles to auto parts composites. In fact, a new Louisville-based company called Sunstrand is on the forefront of establishing this market, says David Williams, an agronomist who directs the Industrial Hemp Research Program at the University of Kentucky.

Companies like BMW have already begun introducing hemp fibers in place of synthetics into their door panels and other molded elements to reduce weight.

“There does appear to be a movement within the injected, molded composite industry toward natural fibers in place of synthetic fibers for the automotive industry. That is one of the reasons I’m so excited about the hemp industry’s potential,” says Williams.

Growing hemp as a food source and for its oil could make for easier initial markets, Watson says, since Kentucky farmers already have the machinery, experience, and knowledge base to grow hemp as a grain crop.

The entire state has the potential to grow hemp successfully, says Williams, who has led trials at UK to try to determine which cannabis varieties lend themselves best to Kentucky’s growing conditions.

“Optimal yields will be derived from high-quality, highly productive land. Land that is highly productive with corn would be expected to be highly productive with hemp,” Williams explains. For fiber varieties, he adds, “anything above 5 tons of dry matter per acre” would be a good yield, while growers of grain varieties could expect “about 1,000 pounds of hemp or seed per acre” as a promising yield.

That could soon change, if Kentucky processors like Atalo—which also hopes to make its own Kentucky-grown hemp seed available to growers in 2016—and GenCanna have their way.

The two Winchester-based firms have formed a strategic alliance to grow and produce industrial hemp that is high in cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound that has many potential health benefits. Last summer, Atalo invited GenCanna to consider forming a research and development entity, which led to the creation of the Hemp Research Campus, headquartered in a former tobacco seed research facility in Winchester.

“We’ll be developing our CBD products as Kentucky Proud products, developed by Kentuckians for Kentucky and for sale around the nation and the world. It’s pretty amazing,” Bevan says.

“The hemp oil is very desirable, it’s relatively easy to cultivate, and it’s in high demand,” says Graves.

Unlike other growers, who have faced the challenge of importing hemp seeds from other countries, GenCanna has partnered with two experienced Kentucky nurseries to begin its crops in greenhouses via rooted cuttings of its novel hemp cultivar. One nursery is run by the Shell family in Garrard County, who are Inter-County Energy Cooperative members, and the other by the Halverson family in Jackson County, members of Jackson Energy Cooperative.

“We’re here because of Kentucky’s thought leaders,” says Bevan, explaining his company’s choice to relocate to Kentucky. “The policy makers, the farmers, the researchers, and the scientists who need to move this forward are already here. They are doing what they’re doing because they understand where Kentucky’s agriculture needs to go. Farmers were looking for a new commodity and a new agricultural crop, and lo and behold, it’s the one that was here before tobacco.” (Kentucky was once the nation’s leading hemp state, producing a peak of 40,000 tons in 1850.)

“It’s all about rural economic development,” says Graves. “And this is the crop that can do it.”

For more information on hemp in Kentucky, read The How-tos of Hemp in Kentucky.


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