Hemp’s uncertain future

By Jennifer Moonsong
Jobe Publishing Regional Features

As 2018 begins it appears that hemp has a bright future in south central Kentucky, but it has not been an overnight success.
Since hemp was reintroduced as a production crop in 2013, the topic has been shrouded in controversy and confusion. Only now, is it beginning to be understood and accepted as viable agriculture.

“Kentucky continues to lead on industrial hemp research, exploring every aspect of this versatile crop,” Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said. “Because of the research conducted by our growers, processors, and universities, I am more optimistic than ever that we can put industrial hemp on a path to widespread commercialization once Congress removes it from the federal list of controlled substances.”

Much of the controversy surrounding hemp exists because its virtues have not yet been thoroughly researched, and because it is so similar to an illegal substance- marijuana.

However, the two are different.

THC is the main psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, particularly marijuana. The hemp plant contains 0.3% or less of THC. Varieties of hemp can contain high percentages of CBD, which is the desired cannabidiol for products. In fact, studies examining the protective effects of CBD have shown that CBD can counteract the psychoactive effects of THC.

“Here in Kentucky, we have worked hard with the law enforcement community to prove we can have an industrial hemp research pilot program that is consistent with the law,” Commissioner Quarles said. “I am proud of the relationship we have built.”

The pros and cons

Although industrial hemp’s potential for the state of Kentucky is vast, the current state of affairs aptly reflects the industry has not been an overnight success. Rather, it is a work in progress.

For example, hemp seeds are very costly. In order to grow industrial hemp, even on a relatively small scale, start-up costs can be considerable.

“Because there is a small amount of seeds available, and they all initially had to be imported, it was not a sustainable system,” said Dr. David Williams, University of Kentucky Agronomist.

Fortunately for the farmers, seed saving is changing the game.
“Farmers are now culling seeds that can be used in future years,” said Williams.

One hemp myth is that it can be sustained by small scale farming, which isn’t necessarily true. Small-scale is a relative term.

“We need to think of hemp grain exactly the same as field corn, the same as we do other commodity crops, such as soybeans,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of supply and demand.”

Which raises the question, what is the demand and what can hemp be used for?

“In 2017, Kentucky was relatively close to meeting the demand of what can currently be processed,” Williams said.

Hemp can be used in three ways, and each use requires a different production method:
• It can be produced for the stalks, which can be ground and turned into hemp-crete which is now being used to replace plastic car parts, audio components and the like.
• It can be grown for CBD oil which is used in a somewhat medicinal nature.
• Stalk, stem, etc. can be used in food grade and body care products such as hemp powder, lotions and shampoos.

As the industry grows, decreased investment, increased demand and a clear understanding of all its uses has to transpire.

As for the industrial uses, only one company is currently turning stalk into plastic replacement parts, and that company is Sunstrand, LLC in Louisville. Even so, it’s a quickly growing industry.

As for hemp oil (cannabinoids), the demand is great but the legality varies from state to state, and politics and unanswered questions muddy the waters.

CBD oil, which can now be legally sold and produced in Kentucky thanks House Bill 333, can’t be in most of America.

“What we lack is clinical data, from the government prospective, we have a total lack of clinical research data. There is a lack of science to back the claims, and that is the role of the FDA,” Williams said.

Kentucky Hemp in 2018

In 2017, supply met the demand but both have to grow for the industry to become viable agriculture that sustains the Bluegrass.

It so happens, both are growing.

Last year, approximately 3,000 acres of hemp were grown across the state.

As for 2018, more that 12,000 acres have already been approved, along with 681,000 square feet of indoor greenhouse growing space.

South Central Kentucky is becoming an increasingly viable sector of the state as far as the crop is concerned.

“Last year, approximately ten acres of hemp were grown in Metcalfe County,” said Metcalfe County’s Agricultural Extension Agent, Brandon Bell.

Early predictions indicate the number of acres will likely double this year, and Bell is optimistic for his agricultural county based on that projection.

“Although there are still a lot of questions that have to be answered, I am encouraged by the fact that farmers now have the opportunity to explore a new crop, that has the potential to yield a positive economic impact for the county and state,” said Bell.

To learn more about hemp production in Kentucky, visit https://hemp.ca.uky.edu/

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