Heart of Clark: Hemp offers hope to farmers

Published 10:00 am Friday, July 26, 2019

By Nacogdoches Miller

Sun Intern

Once Kentucky’s main cash crop, 100 years later, farmers are taking a gamble on hemp’s return.

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Kenneth Anderson and his brother grew up farming with their dad. By the 1970s, the brothers started a farming company of their own.

Starting in tobacco, Anderson is switching to hemp. He said it’s easier and more labor-efficient than tobacco. But warns not to take on more than you are willing to lose.

The Anderson brothers began in 2014 when the Industrial Hemp Pilot Project began, starting with one acre as a test run, but it was not all green fields.

“Unfortunately, it was a total disaster,” Anderson said. “But it fueled a fire of trying something different.”

With tobacco in a steady decline, Anderson was willing to take the gamble and learn how to grow hemp.

The next year, they raised four and a half acres, 20 acres in 2016 and by 2019, they were raising 70 acres.

While their hemp production had been steadily increasing, he said their tobacco production dropped from 100 acres in 2016 to 30 acres this year.

“We sold tobacco in the (1980s) for $2 a pound, and in 2018, we sold tobacco for $2 a pound,” Anderson said.

Anderson said hemp brings “substantially more” than tobacco.

From their first acre to now, one of the primary problems the brothers discovered was people mistaking hemp for marijuana. But he said it’s gotten better over the years.

Anderson said when encountering these “undesirables,” he sternly tries to explain he is raising hemp and not marijuana which he tells them “is still illegal.”

Since there is no physical difference between hemp and its illegal counterpart — it looks and smells identical — people mistake it for the latter.

Educating people is the best way to keep “undesirables” out.

“I guess the word has gotten out that it has substantially less THC than it takes to get you high,” he said. “It’s .03 percent or less, which makes it legally able to grow as hemp.”

THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana. THC is the active ingredient responsible for getting its users “high.”

Farmers must destroy any plants with a percentage higher than .03 percent according to law.

One of the ways hemp farmers keep the levels down is only raising approved varieties of the plant which have previously shown to stray consistently below the .03 percentile.

The crops are tested for potency two weeks before harvest and are subject to testing at any time during the cultivation period. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) also tests for illegal herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Farmers agree to KDA tests when filling out their applications to raise hemp.

The 12- to 15-page agreement is with the KDA applicants, who must also undergo a background check. Applicants must state intentions of wanting to grow and have a cultivation plan from seed to sell.

“You shouldn’t go out here and just say, ‘I’m going to raise a crop of hemp,’ with no place for it to go,” Anderson said.

He watched the surge of hemp grow from a few farmers in 2014 to more than 1,000 in 2019.

The climate conditions in Kentucky are perfect for hemp and tobacco, he said.

When Anderson’s clone seedlings arrive, he plants his field similarly to how he plants tobacco. He uses a setter and spaces the plants out a little further apart and a little later in the season.

“Hemp grows tremendously fast,” Anderson said, pointing out the size difference between two patches planted days apart.

He said the biggest drawback to hemp is the lack of “herbicides, insecticides or fungicides,” with which they have to work.

“Nothing has been approved to use on it, so we have to manually weed the weeds out with a hoe,” Anderson said.

Different companies have different methods of harvesting the emerald green crop, he said. The company he and his brother work with “green chops it,” or silo chopping rather than hanging it in a barn, like tobacco, to dry.

This process allows the hemp to dry quicker. In turn, it extends the life of the product, allowing people to get the most from the cannabidiol or CBD.

CBD is the sought after active ingredient in hemp plants used to treat multiple ailments.

The liability for workers is less for hemp when harvested through green chopping because it takes out the risks associated with hanging product in barn rafters as well as harvesting in the field.

“It’s still a learning process, (we) learn something new every day with it, seems like,” Anderson said. “It’s somewhat like the blind leading the blind.”

Anderson said he has gained an immense amount of knowledge since his first year working with the crop. He has learned about methods that work and don’t work. Like tobacco, the plants need water at blooming time, but also seem drought-tolerant.

Since seeds are undesirable for CBD production, his farm raises all-female plants cloned from “a mother plant,” to make sure the plants are all female. The seeds used grow from feminized seeds created by spraying a chemical over them while still in the pods.

“It’s exciting to be on the ground floor of an alternative for tobacco,” Anderson said. “And Kentucky has been at the forefront with our leadership and KDA and through our national leaders.”

He said other states are watching Kentucky and looking for guidance on how to work and grow and produce the best quality hemp.

Anderson laughed as he started to talk about the strict guidelines to which farmers must adhere.

“You don’t want KDA on you,” he said. “KDA equals state police.”

Before obtaining approval, the Anderson brothers plotted a map where the crops would grow by GPS coordinates. This process gave state police a comparison when they fly over the patches to ensure what farmers produce is done by the preset guidelines. The brothers also have to attend orientations to learn what they can and can’t do, in addition to paying several fees.

Anderson said the first thing new hemp farmers should note is the amount of money they are willing to lose if the crops go sour.

“There is no federal crop insurance on this crop at this time,” he said. “So don’t invest any more than you are willing to lose because it still is an experimental crop.”

Their farm started small and worked up, learning by trial and error, which isn’t cheap. Anderson said hemp takes quite a bit of money to raise.

It doesn’t help farmers that some banks are still refusing to loan to farmers seeking to grow hemp, he said. Anderson said banks are cautious because of legal and economic risk factors.

Anderson said he doesn’t know if hemp will ever completely take over the demand for tobacco. He said it would depend on the profitably of the products and how much tobacco decreases in demand.

“Farming for fun isn’t much fun,” he said, laughing.

The reason the brothers took the risk was to try new things and avoid getting stale in what they do.

“We tried peppers and vegetable production several, several years ago,” he said. “Didn’t work for us.”

Anderson said every farmer and producer is different in their abilities.

The hemp industry is continually evolving to produce plants capable of producing a higher CBD content with lower THC.

During harvest, farmers and processors are interested in the amount of bud on a plant over the size of the stalk. Some processors pay by the pound of dry bud collected; others factor in the amount of CBD yielded.

“The varieties that we are using now is not what we used in 20014,” Anderson said. “Those varieties have done gone by the wayside.”

Their farm will start to green chop around “mid-September through late October, early November,” Anderson said, hoping to harvest the 70 acres in two weeks.

Aside from producing hemp, the brothers also sell a brand of CBD products in stores, furthering their investment into the future of hemp.

“It’s a continuing, learning, growing process,” he said.

For Anderson and his brother, he said they would continue in the exploration of hemp and the economic value it has for them as well as Clark County and Kentucky.

“Anytime you have industry it benefits jobs, tax structure,” he said. “Without industry, the county will not grow. I would like to see more industry in Clark County so our young people would not have to leave the community to find jobs. We need to have open minds about this, and I think our local leaders have embraced it as a new industry.”