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Industrial Hemp: a locally grown ‘wonder plant’

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By Amanda Manning

 In January, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) approved 209 growers to raise up to 12,800 acres of industrial hemp for research purposes in Kentucky. Six of those farms are in Oldham County, doubling the amount of participants in the county from last year. 

Ashbourne Farms, Stonelea Stable, Kentucky Hemp Brokerage, Round Hill Farm, Robert H. Deibel Greenhouses and Mason Lane LL, dba Harrods Creek Farm, are among those participating in the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. 

 

The purpose of the KDA program is to conduct research about a crop that there is currently limited knowledge about – hemp. 

Industrial hemp is an agricultural crop that is a variety of Cannabis sativa. Although hemp is of the same plant species of marijuana – and smells and looks similar – it contains very low levels of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). Industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent concentration of THC, whereas marijuana typically contains 10 percent. 

Hemp can be used to create a variety of products, including foods, fabrics, rope, auto parts, cosmetics and paper. 

“Limited production knowledge combined with an uncertain federal regulatory environment and unstable pricing creates significant risk for the participant,” KDA’s website states. 

Ashbourne Farms in La Grange is in their second year of growing hemp in the industrial hemp pilot program. In May, the farm will be planting 12 acres of hemp seeds from Canada. 

Growers have the option to focus their research on floral material, grain or fiber. Ashbourne Farms chose grain. 

“We were really interested to see if it would benefit the wildlife in any way,” Joseph Monroe, head of vegetable production at Ashbourne Farms said. “In addition to being a good crop for humans to eat. So, we’re growing it for seed grain.” 

The hemp seeds attracted doves and quails. “We had some of the best dove hunting we had with that seed,” Monroe said.  

Although last year’s hemp crop benefitted the farm in some ways, it was still an unsuccessful harvest and therefore the farm had to destroy the crop, according to government regulations. “We asked for a extension from the KDA so that the birds could benefit from eating the seeds and then we mowed it down,” Monroe explained.

Ashbourne Farms is hoping to have a successful harvest this year in late August to early September. 

Two of the biggest challenges the farm has faced with growing hemp are harvesting the crop and getting rid of the weeds surrounding it.

“There is no regulated spray for killing the weeds that wouldn’t also kill the hemp as well,” Monroe explained. “You have to plant it so closely together that you can’t really weed it. So you have to play with your spacing and get the weeds kind of out of your field before.

“We produced a lot of seeds but we just couldn’t run the combine. The crop was there, but the weeds were right there too,” Monroe added.

Besides the weeds blocking the crop, the fiber on hemp is tough, making it difficult to harvest with a combine without tearing up the machine. “There’s just not a lot of specialized equipment for hemp, so we’re retro-fitting the equipment that we have for other crops to make it work for this crop,” Monroe explained.

Before the hemp is harvested this fall, the KDA sends out a representative to test the levels of THC in the crop to make sure it is within regulation. If it passes the test, Ashbourne Farms’ hemp grain is sent to Victory Hemp Foods, a local processor that operates out of Henry County and Louisville. 

Victory Hemp Foods produces “nutritious, delicious, sustainable hemp grain in the form of organic oil, protein powder, flour, and de-hulled seeds to health conscious consumers nationwide,” according to their website. 

One of their products is hemp hearts, which are raw shelled hemp seeds that contain all nine amino acids. Hemp hearts are gluten free, soy free and are paleo-diet approved. 

The Kentucky Legislature recently approved Senate Bill 218, which would combine the industrial hemp research pilot program with the federal Farm Bill, which would help the industry move forward.  The industrial hemp research program currently operates under the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which “permits industrial hemp pilot programs by state departments of agriculture or universities in states where hemp production is permitted by state law.” The bill is now headed Governor Matt Bevin for his approval. 

“It’s kind of a wonder plant that we’re trying to figure out how to use and how to get enough production of so we meet the demand for it,” Monroe said.