MURRAY -- Hemp was not the only four-letter word that begins with "h" that was mentioned several times during the recent kickoff celebration for Murray State University's new Center for Agricultural Hemp.

Dr. Tony Brannon, dean of Murray State's Hutson School of Agriculture, who served as master of ceremonies for the kickoff event, used the word to introduce one of the invited guests in attendance, 1st District U.S. Rep. James Comer.

"We do have a true hemp hero. Someone that we take our hat off to today as we celebrate this kickoff because he was instrumental on the front end and took a chance when other people were not willing to take chances," Brannon said.

"Obviously, Congressman Comer's work started when he was Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and singled this out as an issue for growth here in the commonwealth," he said. "Since that work that started in 2012-13, he has been a hemp hero and we're pleased to have him here today to celebrate with him and to congratulate him, and to challenge us all to keep this train going."

Comer and Brannon have shared the spotlight in recent months as Kentucky's place as a leader in the resurgence of hemp has been celebrated, particularly since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill which reclassified hemp as an agricultural commodity.

Murray State planted the first legal agricultural research plot in May 2014. Since then, the university has led the way on industrial hemp, hosting field days and working with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture as well as local farmers, researchers, legislators and hemp-related companies.

Comer recounted some of the challenges he encountered along the way in garnering support for hemp. And, he returned the favor in acknowledging Brannon's "heroic" efforts along the way, including when those first hemp seeds were planted.

"It took a lot of courage for Dr. Brannon to take those seeds because there were still a lot of naysayers," Comer said. "No other university in America had planted hemp since World War II. But Dr. Brannon and the staff and leadership at Murray State said 'we're going to do this, we're going to be a leader in this because we think it's something that will help farmers.'

"The fact that we have the Center for Agricultural Hemp here bodes very well for the future of west Kentucky. And, again, that goes back to Murray State and Dr. Brannon taking risk in planting those first seeds," he said.

"I think the future is very bright, and we're going to look back in history and say that Dr. Brannon is the true hemp hero. And this university made a great decision in taking a risk and being a leader in industrial hemp research."

Brannon offered appreciation for the support of the Murray State administration, including Dr. Bob Jackson, the current university president, and all faculty and staff.

He also praised the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, in addition to passage of the 2018 Farm Bill which removed hemp from the controlled substance list, inserted pilot program language in the 2014 Farm Bill; and current Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles for expanding hemp production in the commonwealth.

The kickoff celebration also acknowledged the critical role the five companies serving as foundational partners for the new center play.

Those companies are: CV Sciences, GenCanna, Vertical Wellness, Unified Ag Holding Inc., and Fibonacci HempWood.

According to Dr. Brian Parr, Murray State assistant dean of agriculture, the success of an endeavor like the Center for Agricultural Hemp depends on partnerships.

"What we're doing here is pretty special, but it is something that certainly depends on good partners," he said.

"This is a great example of a kind of public/private industry partnership," Parr said.

"Our five initial foundation partners have come together and made a major contribution to this center in order to get it off the ground, in order to start the projects related to the agricultural business models that will be developed."

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the acreage devoted to growing hemp has increased rapidly, according to Brannon.

"It's going to be significant, and a lot of that acreage is going to be in our region that we serve in the state of Kentucky," he said.

"We're going to build it from the ground up, and the way we do that is through corporate support. Certainly these folks (foundational partners) are heroes, too.

"They're very different. They come from all aspects, they have different histories, different backgrounds. Some have been at it a long time, some short. But the thing they all have in common is they have rallied behind us, and as we say many times 'the rising tide raises all ships.'"

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