BARDWELL -- While a planned processing plant estimated to bring 100 jobs did not materialize, western Kentucky is still poised to take advantage of the growing economic possibilities related to producing industrial hemp.
That was evident from one of the panel discussions during the two-day WAVE (West Kentucky Alliance for a Vibrant Economy) event this week examining the confluence of agriculture and the river economy. WAVE is a collective effort of river counties Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton and HIckman.
News that the previously announced hemp oil extraction facility will not be built here wasn't specifically mentioned during the one-hour panel presentation -- "The Re-emergence of Industrial Hemp and the Opportunity for West Kentucky" -- moderated by Dr. Tony Brannon, dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture at Murray State University.
What was mentioned was the potential industrial hemp still holds for west Kentucky farmers and the area's agriculture economy. The various components of industrial hemp can be made into a wide variety of marketable products.
Brannon provided a brief history of industrial hemp and Murray State's hemp pilot program which began in 2014.
"We owe a lot to Congressman James Comer, who was then agriculture commissioner of the state of Kentucky, who really felt hemp could make an impact on Kentucky, and to the true proactiveness of our legislature," Brannon said. "We had a program ready to go when the last Farm Bill made the pilot program legal."
The university planted the first industrial hemp in the state and possibly the nation on May 12, 2014, according to Brannon.
"We started with 33 acres in 2014; in 2015, we went to 900 acres planted; in 2016, 2,300 acres; in 2017, 3,200 acres; and in 2018, permit for 12,000 acres," he said.
Last year Kentucky had $7.5 million in crop sales from hemp and a capital investment of about $26 million, according to Brannon.
"We're seeing something that's really going to escalate."
Jonathan Miller, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Lexington, is general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.
He echoed Brannon's praise of Comer's efforts and also noted the strong support of other Kentucky officials including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and at the state level, Rep. Richard Heath.
Miller specifically mentioned McConnell's efforts to get hemp-related language into the Farm Bill, and Comer's recent appointment as a member of the conference committee which will reconcile the Senate- and House-approved versions of the bill.
"We feel really good that as of Sept. 30 (when the current Farm Bill expires), hemp will be permanently removed from the Controlled Substance Act, and it will be clear that all hemp products will be legal federally," he said.
Federal approval does not mean individual states cannot pass their own laws prohibiting hemp product sales, Miller said.
Kentucky already has approved hemp legislation, and Miller believes other states that haven't already will follow suit.
"We're very hopeful that, if not every state, most every state will pass good legislation in the short term" he said.
Hickman County farmer J.T. Workman is a leading hemp producer.
While noting that "hemp is one of the most finicky crops that I've ever been around in my life," he said west Kentucky farmers are working through the challenges and getting close to having a sustainable market.
"I'm doing certified seed production for (Lexington-based) Schiavi Seeds, and we're growing some of the main fiber varieties that are around," Workman said. "And we've got some of the best varieties for a triple crop. However, you think about getting the fiber out, the seed out, the floral out ... it's a task."
Workman described the effort as one of the largest seed productions in the country that could result in up to a million pounds of certified seed in three months time.
"I want to say about over 75 percent of it (seed) is already spoken for," he said. "We've already got requests to send some of the seed back to Europe and some to South America. ..."
According to Workman, of the roughly 1,800 acres of hemp planted, "about 1,600 acres will be harvested, and I'm going to say about 90 percent of that is as good a crop as I can ask for."
Steve Bevan is president of GenCanna, a company which employs over 70 people in hemp processing/production formulation, marketing and sales at its facility in Winchester which has been operating 41/2 years.
"We operate in six counties in central Kentucky and Graves County here in west Kentucky with over 1,200 acres," Bevan said.
"We're excited about our relationships that are evolving with family farmers. We believe very strongly that the bedrock of this evolving hemp industry is the family farm," he said.
West Kentucky is well positioned to take advantage of the growing industrial hemp industry, Bevan believes.
"We'd like to find a way to focus on the river counties," he said. "There's a lot of hope here, a lot of anticipation that with some hard work and investment over the next couple of years, farmers can find a way to capitalize on hemp products."