Farmers note risk, rewards as hemp planting nears

Jed Clark looks down at rows of hemp growing in his farm field near Lynnville. Clark, 39, is a first-time hemp farmer. He is growing eight varieties of the crop on 15 acres this year to see what works best for his farm.

SHELLEY BYRNE | The Mayfield Messenger

MAYFIELD -- Thirty-two Graves County farmers are licensed to grow hemp this year, and virtually all of it will be in the ground within the next two weeks.

Lynnville's Jed Clark is growing hemp for the first time. He's planting 15 acres, splitting it among eight different varieties in test plots.

"We're trying to see what does the best for this climate," he said.

Clark, 39, and neighboring farmers he has spoken with planned on transplanting all their hemp seedlings into the ground by the end of this week.

"This is all new to everybody," he said. "It's all a learning curve for all of us, and hopefully we'll all be profitable doing it."

Whether hemp will replace tobacco as a cash crop is unknown, Graves County Agriculture Agent Samantha Anderson said.

"As with any new industry, hemp is a high risk/potentially high-reward scenario," Anderson said. "The best approach to the hemp industry is that of cautious optimism. New growers should be acutely aware of the risks that this crop brings to the table.

"The hemp industry has the chance to allow farmers to diversify production, but I would not venture to make such a bold claim that the economic impact of tobacco production could ever be replaced."

Overall, her advice for anyone interested in farming hemp would be to "not risk any more than you're willing to lose."

"This is an exciting time with many, sometimes too good to be true," Anderson said. "Hemp certainly has a strong future in the Kentucky farm economy, but cautious optimism still holds strong."

Clark contracted with a Russellville-based company for his crop, which he will deliver after air curing it.

"Our process is we'll cut it by hand," he said. "We'll hang it in tobacco barns, and then we'll strip it by hand and strip the floral material off, and it will be sold as dry weight matter."

Some other farmers are using silage cutters or other mechanized harvesters and delivering their hemp to a processor straight from the fields for commercial sorting and drying.

Although the plants are just going in the ground now, Kentucky farmers interested in growing hemp had to plan for it at least seven to nine months ago, before the federal farm bill passed. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture's application for the state's hemp pilot program opened last Oct. 1 and closed Nov. 30.

Interested farmers attended a mandatory orientation, underwent a background check and paid application and participant fees. They swore they had either farmed full-time for at least a year or had a bachelor's degree in agriculture from an accredited university.

They agreed to file planting, production and harvest reports, showed proof of plans to legally acquire seeds and market their crops, allowed their crops to be inspected at any time with no advance notice, and submitted their approved fields' longitude and latitude coordinates so GPS data will designate them as approved hemp fields when police do flyovers to look for marijuana, which looks identical but is chemically very different.

Production isn't easy, either. It takes about the same amount of work to grow hemp as it does tobacco, Clark said. Unlike tobacco, though, much of the crop is grown organically and fertilized with hog manure or chicken litter.

"There are no labeled pesticides we can spread over the hemp crop," he said. Nor are there approved herbicides for use after planting. Many farmers hand hoe around the plants to prevent weeds.

"Weed pressure is probably our greatest concern right now in the growing season," Clark said.

Many farmers have invested in irrigation rigs since too much hot, dry weather isn't good for the plants, but neither is too much rain. They are constantly checking for signs of plant diseases, talking to each other about what they have seen, and bringing in help from others when needed. "Nowadays you can snap a picture and send it to someone two hours away," Clark said.

He has also mailed off plant samples so chemists can check nutrient compounds in the growing plants and make recommendations of how to improve them.

Once the growing season is complete, the risk still isn't over. All the farmers agreed to crop testing at harvest time and, if necessary, to do the unthinkable after so much time and effort. If a sample taken by a Kentucky Department of Agriculture inspector within 15 days of the harvest finds the hemp contains more than 0.3 percent THC, the substance that makes cannabis smokers feel a chemical high, and a second optional test finds the same thing, it must all be destroyed.

Since crop insurance programs largely don't exist for hemp, the farmer would be out the production costs.

It's a lot of risk, Clark said, but plenty of farmers think it's worth it. Dark-fired tobacco farmers, virtually all of whom grow the crop in far western Kentucky or northwest Tennessee, have been seeing sales decrease about 2 percent a year, he said.

"The corn price wasn't very good," he said. "The (soy)bean price wasn't very good, and it's been good to have the hemp to diversify our operations."

He knows of Graves County farmers growing anywhere from 2½ to 130 acres of hemp and hoping for the best. They should find out if their efforts paid off when the harvest begins in September or October.

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