Once Taboo, Hemp Is Hip

Most states have laws allowing some production of this growing commodity.

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish examines a hemp plant he planted earlier this fall. Furnish was among the earliest supporters of growing hemp in the state, Image by Chris Clayton

Hemp is not just an option for producers in states across the U.S. these days, it’s also become a state and national attention-getter in political circles.

The promotion of hemp recently reached the U.S. Senate floor with the passage of a resolution designating “Hemp History Week” in June and citing the value of imported hemp at $76 million annually. Products made from hemp--of which there are more than 25,000--were reported to be valued at more than $820 million.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the opportunity to tout his bill, the “Hemp Farming Act,” which had 27 cosponsors at press time, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). McConnell noted that before federal marijuana prohibition, hemp was a major crop in his home state of Kentucky.

“Since Kentucky’s earliest days, industrial hemp has played a foundational role in our agricultural history and economy,” McConnell says. “With our Hemp Farming Act of 2018, I believe that hemp can also be an important part of our future.”

Looking Back. Senators aren’t the only ones who can recall history. Talk to most Kentuckians, and they will inevitably highlight the state’s hemp production through World War II. Back then, it was part of the war effort and used for a variety of military necessities, including ropes and other fiber-based products.

Now, in 2018, McConnell’s bill would once again fully legalize hemp production in the U.S. It would remove the hemp plant from being a Schedule 1 drug under the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and allow USDA to oversee production of the crop. USDA would allow for the possibility that, one day, farmers could buy crop insurance for hemp or be able to apply for other forms of assistance available to specialty-crop growers.

“That’s the main thing that McConnell’s bill will help with is opening up hemp to mainstream … researchers, investors, crop insurance,” says Brian Furnish, a farmer in Cynthiana, Kentucky. He was one of the earliest advocates for reestablishing hemp production in the state.

Going Mainstream. “Right now, we can’t get offered crop insurance or any USDA programs,” he adds. “It’s critical that you have a majority leader that this is his No. 1 ag issue. And, he sees the benefits of it.

“We had been talking for years about how we were going to diversify away from tobacco,” says Furnish, who became the first chairman of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission and now is president of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.

Joseph Sisk, who farms near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, says hemp farmers such as himself operate in a kind of “neverland.” He believes McConnell’s bill would make it easier for hemp farmers and processing businesses to buy property and casualty insurance for their operations. Currently, Sisk notes it has been nearly impossible to insure inventory on the farm.

“They won’t insure the inventory because, from a federal standpoint, they are confused about how to handle it,” he says.

Sisk began farming the crop in 2016. He went to Colorado to see how farmers there produced it, but he and others recognized not everything translates the same because of different growing conditions. He has tinkered with plant populations each year, starting with 1,250 plants per acre. That proved too thin, with plants that grew too big, so Sisk doubled the planting population the second year and will bump it up again this year, to 3,000 plants per acre.

Farmers aren’t allowed to use pesticides on hemp, but they are experimenting with different fertilizer rates. Sisk says he’s seeing producers use anywhere from 125 pounds of nitrogen per acre to as much as 200 pounds. Initially, people were suggesting hemp could grow in almost any environment, but Sisk says he’s finding hemp is similar to any other cash crop.

“The better the ground makes better hemp like any other crop in the world,” he says. “Farmers as a whole in this state have been fantastic about sharing information with each other.”

Varied End Uses. Thanks to McConnell, hemp became a national pilot-project crop in the 2014 farm bill, allowing hemp to be grown under the oversight of a state agency or university research program. One major difference between hemp and marijuana is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the compound that provides the “high” the plant is known for. Marijuana sold in Colorado may have an average THC level of 20%, while hemp production under the 2014 farm bill is only allowed 0.3% THC content for the harvested crop.

Outside of its more potent cannabis cousin, hemp is nearly as diverse a plant as corn. Different varieties of hemp are raised for healing oils, fiber or food products. The final processing product determines the variety of plant grown and whether it demands more hand labor or mechanical production. A great deal of the hemp being grown in Kentucky is for the booming cannabidiol (CBD) market.

CBD oil is touted for an array of health benefits, but sellers technically cannot make health claims under the Food and Drug Administration. The oil, sold as drops, gelcaps or salve gel, is sold in health stores and pharmacies nationally, as well as online.

“We know it helps people feel better and sleep better, and it’s used for all kinds of different issues,” Furnish says.

Early on, there were a lot of people showing up in Kentucky looking to start a CBD oil-processing operation. Sisk compared it to a boomtown mentality, but the Kentucky Department of Agriculture stepped in to ensure farmers were not signing up with questionable speculators. Sisk credits the department for the way it has regulated the initial development of the industry.

“The department made sure it didn’t get out of hand or become a circus,” Sisk says. “They controlled it very tightly, but they facilitated it. It’s been one of my best interactions with a government entity. They want it to be awesomely successful, but they have kept tight control over it.”

ACREAGE EXPANDING. Kentucky officials report 3,271 acres of hemp were grown in the state in 2017. Final 2018 acreage numbers were not available at press time, but they were projected up from 2017 levels.

Farmers made about $7.5 million off Kentucky’s 2017 crop last year, while more than $25.6 million was invested in more capital to continue growing the industry.

Furnish farms in partnership for an Australian company called Ecofibre and sells CBD oil under the “Ananda” brand. He and his brothers grow about 400 acres of hemp, of which 300 will be tied to Ecofibre. Another 100 acres will be contracted elsewhere.

Once the 2014 farm bill passed, Furnish says he started getting phone calls, and they haven’t stopped.

“People all over the world started calling me wanting to get into hemp,” he says. “As long as they are farmers, I talk to them.”

At least 42 states now allow some form of hemp cultivation. These include Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all of which adopted new laws in the last few months. States yet to enact any law include Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Some of those states have bills or state referendums for hemp production.

Parts of McConnell’s new bill may be less needed after the DEA released a memo citing products and materials made from cannabis that fall outside the definition of marijuana can be sold without restriction nationally. The DEA’s decision, 14 years after a federal court ruling against the agency in the same vein, broadens the ability to produce, import and export various cannabis products.

Back To Their Roots. If any producers have an edge in the hemp-growing industry, it may those Kentucky farmers. They grow it for the CBD oil in much the same way earlier generations here grew burley tobacco, taking bedded plants from a greenhouse, planting them, then cutting and hanging the mature plants in barns.

“We actually grow our hemp the exact same way,” says Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer. “Not everybody grows that way, but that’s how we do it.”

Furnish notes he has netted $2,000 an acre off his hemp crop but adds that growing the plants for oil production requires a lot of labor. Producers often use the same labor force that works in tobacco fields to handle a hemp crop.

Because of hemp’s various end uses, Furnish expects to see some splitting off by variety across various regions of the country based on type of production and end use. A grain or hay farmer, for instance, might dabble more in hemp varieties grown for fiber because they can be harvested with equipment similar to a silage chopper.

“I think the fiber and the food will go out west to the bigger grain areas, where they are not used to crops that are labor intensive, and we’ll do more of the buds and the flowers here for the cannabinoids,” Furnish says.

Sisk, like Furnish, farms at some scale, but he has enjoyed the learning experience of working with hemp and the fledgling industry.

“It’s evolved real quickly into a better farming model for the producers,” Sisk says. “It’s a great little industry. It’s going to continue to become more important. It just has to be delisted.”


Chris Clayton