Beside a humming industrial combine, Crofton farmer Kendal Clark gazed across his field, home to the largest hemp crop in Kentucky.
During the harvesting process Tuesday, Clark said while the future is foggy, there is great potential for this year’s crop.
“It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it is showing some potential when it didn’t have the best chance in the world. It’s really turning around more than I would have imagined.”
The crop, planted in mid-June, is a first for Clark, who is primarily a tobacco farmer. He said he’s already been contacted by several agencies, including the Epilepsy Foundation and various pharmaceutical chains, for potential uses for the crop.
“The possibilities for this crop have barely been tapped,” he said.
While this is the first year Clark has grown hemp, he is no stranger to the farming game. He has been harvesting most his life and full-time since 1977. Farming is embedded in his family’s roots, and his parents grew hemp during World War II under a federal contract.
Before planting, Clark had to obtain a permit, which he said was a lengthy process. Clark is working through the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program, which stemmed from the passage of two separate laws — Senate Bill 50 passed in 2013 and the Farm Bill signed into law February 2014.
Doris Hamilton, coordinator of the Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, confirmed Clark’s hemp field is the largest in the state.
Clark is among 99 people approved to plant hemp this year. Last year, the first year hemp production was legal in more than 50 years, that number was only 20.
Hamilton said the approval process is selective and only about a third of applicants were approved this year. Individuals have to go through a background check and orientation before beginning production.
She said the scale of hemp plots this year ranges from small greenhouses to the extent of Clark’s field. Clark’s main field is approximately 60 acres, and he has small additional fields bringing the total up to 100.
Hamilton said yields varied across the state, with some “very successful” and others not so much.
“The rain in July was detrimental to a lot of folks,” she said. The first six weeks are the most crucial, Hamilton added, and if there is too much rain and not enough sunlight, it can damage the crop.
Hamilton expects crops across the state will be developed into several products, ranging from oil to Cannabidiol, used in various medical treatments.
Last year, there were hemp crops in Pembroke and Dawson Springs. Katie Moyer, a local hemp advocate and partner in a new hemp-based company, Legacy Hemp, said the Dawson Springs crop didn’t survive, and the crop harvested in Pembroke is still bundled and waiting for its next move.
Moyer said the next step for Clark’s crop is to put the seed in bins where it can dry. Then the seed cleaning process will begin.
“We are in a good position to benefit big time from this crop,” she said.
A historical crop
Hemp was first grown in Kentucky in 1775, and the state became the leading producer in the nation. The peak production was in the mid-19th century, with 40,000 tons produced in 1850, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Production dropped off after the Civil War, and Kentucky became almost the exclusive producer of hemp.
Federal legislation passed in 1938 outlawed the production of cannabis, including hemp. But production revved up again during World War II.
Clark’s parents were contracted under the government to produce hemp during the war. The crop, like their son’s, was planted in north Christian County. It was used to make rope for the U.S. Navy.
The crop has faced a certain stigma because it is a variety of cannabis sativa, which is of the same plant species as marijuana.
But Clark said the crops are distinctly different, pointing out how easily the difference can be detected by looking at it. He has faced a few jokes around the community about growing hemp, but said the response has generally been positive.
Looking to the future
Clark said he plans on planting hemp again next year, taking what he has learned this season and carrying that knowledge into next year’s crop.
“It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve been learning,” he said. “It has intrigued us enough and really hasn’t had a fair chance this year with the weather. We just want to give it the best shot we can.”
The exact economic impact is still unclear, and it may be months before an answer is known.
“This is a grand experiment,” Clark said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
– The first hemp crop in Kentucky was grown in 1775.
– An estimated 55,700 metric tons of industrial hemp are produced around the world each year.
– China, Russia and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations and account for 70 percent of the world’s industrial hemp supply.
– More than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity.
– Current industry estimates report U.S. retail sales of all hemp-based products may exceed $300 million per year.
– It is illegal to grow hemp without a permit from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency).
— Information from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s website
Reach Rebecca Walter at 270-887-3241 or [email protected].