Promising Future

Can hemp replace tobacco
as Kentucky’s top cash crop?

Dozens of Kentucky farmers
have jumped onto the hemp bandwagon

May 2019 Cover

(May 2019) – Industrial hemp can be grown for food products, CBD oil and products or fiber. The end product determines the method and processes. Robert Deibel and his uncle, Dennis Deibel, both of Crestwood, Ky., grow hemp plants from cuttings to sell to farmers. Paul Glover is a third-generation vegetable farmer from Hawesville, Ky., now planting those hemp cuttings.
John Smith is a seventh-generation tobacco farmer from Henry County, Ky., who now grows mostly industrial hemp. He also processes it on-site with his wife, Phyllis, to produce their own brand of CBD products. Other farmers are selling industrial hemp seed to Victory Hemp Foods to be processed into hemp cooking oil. 
Kentucky was the greatest producer of hemp in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, 75 percent of U.S. hemp fiber came from Kentucky.
Hemp prohibition began in 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. The requirements of the Act made it difficult for farmers to continue to grow hemp. Hemp production did increase briefly during World War II under a program called “Hemp for Victory.” But hemp farming again faded away after the war. Kentucky was also the greatest producer of tobacco. But the change in attitudes about smoking and the impact of the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004 was a huge blow to Kentucky farmers. Ultimately, more than 70 per cent of Kentucky farmers were no longer growing tobacco by 2012. This was a major financial hit to farm families. 

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Pictured are large unprocessed hemp seeds at Victory Hemp’s processing facility in Carrollton, Ky.

The Agricultural Act of 2014 legalized growing and cultivating industrial hemp for research purposes. That change made it possible for farmers to participate in a pilot Kentucky program to grow hemp. The December 2018 Farm Bill legalized the production of hemp in states like Kentucky, where there is a state plan to monitor and regulate the crop. These regulatory changes provided a window of opportunity for farmers.
In family farming, each generation has to make changes to keep that farm or business successful for the next generation. Today, growing hemp in Kentucky is a story of farm families writing a new chapter for the next generation
The Robert Deibel Greenhouse was started in 1924 on Taylorsville Road in Louisville, Ky., by Robert Deibel. The business was passed on to his son, Robert H. Deibel Sr., then to grandsons Robert Henry Deibel Jr. and Dennis Deibel. Today, Robert Henry Deibel III (Bobby), is co-owner with his uncle, Dennis, since the death of his father in 2014. Looking over almost four acres of greenhouses and plants now located in Crestwood, Bobby noted that the business had added about an acre under glass each generation. He grew up in the business, working every task.
“When I was in high school, it came down to the question of ‘Are you going to stay in this business?’ ” When his answer was “yes,” another acre of greenhouse was added. To prepare for his future responsibilities, Bobby completed a degree in agronomy at the University of Kentucky.
Annuals for both wholesale and retail are grown in the greenhouses. Bobby said, “Most people don’t think of hemp as an annual.”

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Employee Collin Gallus poses at the Victory Hemp processing facility in Carrollton, Ky.

The Deibels start the hemp plants with cuttings from female clone plants. The cuttings are poked directly into a hole in a small cube of growing medium in a tray. Each tray has two strips with 34 plants per strip, a total of 68 tiny cuttings per tray. The trays of plants are sold to farmers either as tiny cuttings or small plants about 6-8 inches high. Glover is one of the farmers who plants the tiny cuttings.
Glover, 60, started farming as a teenager on his grandparent’s farm. He said he wanted to go off to “the big city” and leave farming behind. After a successful career as a builder, he returned to the family farm in Hawesville, Ky., to help care for his aging parents.
His father died in 2017, and his mom is now 96. His parents used to grow vegetables to sell at the local farmers market. “It is hard to make enough money to survive,” he said.
Glover is now growing hemp to produce CBD products. He uses a water wheel planter to poke a hole in the plastic landscaping tarp to plant the hemp starts. This method produces consistent, even spacing between the plants and delivers the right amount of water and fertilizer to each plant. His plants are watered using a drip irrigation system. He harvests the plants by hand, cutting them at the base. The plants are dried briefly upside down in his barn. Then the buds are stripped and sent for processing in Louisville at Commonwealth Extracts.  The finished products are returned to Glover, who markets CBD oil and salve under his brand, “Mile Marker No. 5.”
He has been planting industrial hemp for five years. The first three years were an investment in learning and building a successful model, without making a profit. Glover said, “People think it sounds so easy to just plant hemp and make a lot of money. It doesn’t work that way. It is hard work, with small returns.”
Glover farms 65 acres – 50 of his own plus 15 leased acres for additional production. “I am just a little fish. The 2019 season is done. Anyone who wants to plant in 2020 needs to start now.”
Glover said he likes to help other farmers and is always willing to answer questions because “farming is hard enough. Some people want to charge farmers who need help.” Glover credits Kentucky Rep. Jamie Comer for pushing industrial hemp legislation to help Kentucky farmers earn better money.

From the ground up

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Hemp plant starts are shown in this photo taken at Deibel Greenhouse in Crestwood, Ky.

The Smiths’ farm is located in New Castle, Ky. In 2014, when Kentucky initiated a small pilot program to grow hemp, only 14 growers were approved. Smith started in that pilot program at the beginning of the second year. The program was still in its infancy. Smith said, “There were many issues, there was no textbook. Everything was learned the hard way.” There have been new challenges each year. He added, “Last year, the weather just played havoc with our crop.”
Now in his fourth year, he will plant 1-1.5 acres by hand. It is very labor intensive. He has tried using plastic to keep the weeds down with drip irrigation but did not get a good root system. This year, he is going back to planting like he planted tobacco. He will till only where the plant is placed and use a cover crop to keep down the weeds. For the cover crop, he uses annual rye, tillage radishes and rapeseed. He may add white clover this year to increase nitrogen.
For fertilizer, farmers have used cow and chicken manure, but those sources may contain heavy metals. Hemp is a “receptor crop” that will pull whatever is bad out of the soil. Planting hemp requires very careful soil management. The soil must be continually checked to ensure purity. This year, Smith plans to try pelletized manure that has been pretested to verify it is clean. He will continue to test the plants to ensure they are getting the proper nutrients until the plant is ready to bud. He said, “We care about the bud. It is quality in, quality out.”  These are issues that concern all industrial hemp farmers. Smith said farmers work together to solve these types of problems.
Timing of the harvest is critical also. Last year, Smith said he harvested too soon due to the weather issues, and the crop was worthless. He has had three crops, but only one was very good and paid well. A factor for contract farmers to consider is that it can take a long time to get paid. This year, the prices have dropped. If a farmer doesn’t know and understand all of the factors that can affect the hemp crop, they could have big losses.
Hemp farming in Kentucky has grown each year. Smith said that approximately 250 growers planted 6,700 acres in 2018. They have struggled with insect and caterpillar issues. No pesticides are allowed to be used with industrial hemp production. This year has more than 1,000 growers with 50,000 permitted acres. It is possible that supply could exceed demand and drive the prices down. “There is way too much hype in the hemp industry right now.”

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

This photo of hemp buds was taken at John and Phyllis Smith’s Essentially Hemp operation in New Castle, Ky.

Last year, Smith joined the Kentucky Hemp Industry Association (KYHIA). He is the only farmer on the board.  Now that his name is listed on the website, he gets calls from all over the country. He received a call from a broker in Arizona. Smith had to explain to the broker that Arizona does not even have their state program set up yet. A farmer needs to be registered and have storage and processing facilities lined up. Another caller from Wisconsin was interested in setting up industrial hemp farming on an Indian reservation for fiber production. Smith said that he tries to help everyone. 
He also helps work and manage other farms for fiber and seed – all aspects of hemp production. Smith has “done tobacco since the age of 9, raised corn, soybeans, heirloom tomatoes.”
He said, “Everyone thinks it is easy. Hemp is the hardest crop I have ever grown. I ate and slept hemp these last few years.”
Smith studied hemp for three years before planting his first crop. He said he is still learning. For example, one farmer can have 10 acres planted for fiber, but if that field pollinates another farmer’s nearby 100-acre hemp field planted for CBD, the cross pollination can destroy the whole CBD crop. Pollination results in seeds, not buds. A farmer growing hemp for CBD doesn’t want it to go to seed.
Hemp for CBD uses feminized clones and only the buds are harvested. Smith said he is meticulous about every step in the process. These are some of the issues that cause problems for new growers. Every grower needs to know what his neighbor is growing because it can affect his crop.
Smith has two farms. One is about seven miles away from his house, and the second farm close to his house. He is able to rotate some fields, but not all of them. He rotates by planting his rows four feet apart. The following year, he can move over two feet to use different soil. He is careful about soil management because he knows his fields are clean through consistent testing. He has studied soil science for about 14 years.
This year, Smith also plans to try a small “hoop house” with some greenhouse pots as a way to try “indoor” farming. That brings new challenges of managing heat, insects and mites. He plans to place about 60 plants close to his processing facility.
Most farmers send their harvest to a commercial processing facility. Phyllis had the laboratory and technical background to develop their own onsite processing of CBD oil and products. They use a third-party commercial laboratory for required testing and documentation of each batch produced.
Producing hemp for CBD is very labor intensive. Larger farms require huge, expensive machines, similar to tobacco processing machines. 

Victory Hemp expands

Hemp can also be grown for food production. Chad Rosen, founder and CEO of Victory Hemp Foods, contracts with local farmers to process hemp seed at the Victory Hemp facility in Carrollton, Ky. Harvested seeds arrive at the facility in 2,000-pound commercial bags. The raw seeds are first processed to remove dust and weed particles. Next the seeds are sorted by size: small, medium and large. Finally, the seeds are dehulled and winnowed to remove the chaff. The finished seeds are bagged to be transported to another plant to be pressed into hemp cooking oil.

Photo provided

Hemp farmer Paul Glover of Hawesville, Ky.

Collin Gallus, Production Lead at this facility in Carrollton said, “One 2,000-pound bag of raw seeds yields 800 pounds of hulled seed, also called hemp hearts.”
Hemp hearts, seeds and hemp protein powder are sold as foods and food additives, which have very high protein and nutrient values. “Hemp food products have been classified by the FDA as ‘GRAS,’ which means, generally regarded as safe,” Rosen explained. That puts them in the same category as other edible seeds or cooking oils.
Rosen added that Victory Hemp Foods is always looking for additional farmers to supply raw hemp seeds for production. Interested individuals can contact him through their website: www.victory hempseeds.com.
Dr. David Williams, Director of Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability and Professor, Plant and Soils Science Department at the University of Kentucky, explained how regulations impact every hemp farming step; how it will be farmed and processed; what products are made; how they can be sold; and how they can be distributed.
For example, he said, “Sugar production is at one end of the spectrum. Sugar is common food product that subject to minimal regulations. At the other end of the spectrum is a new prescription drug, Epidiolex, approved by the FDA on June 25, 2018.”
Epidiolex is the first pharmaceutical formulation of highly purified, plant-derived cannabidiol (CBD) for the treatment of seizures. This product does not contain THC, which produces the high in marijuana, but is subject to all of the Code of Federal Regulations for pharmaceuticals.

“Those regulations lead to a highly controlled, highly managed indoor crop to be able to achieve a high level of predictability for pharmaceuticals,” he explained.

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