Universities begin hemp research

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Interest from Shelby farmers is minor now, but they are waiting for more information

By Lisa King

With hemp seeds just getting into the ground, farmers around the state, including in Shelby, still have a lot of questions about the possibility of growing industrial hemp.

Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), chair of the Agriculture Committee, said he’s had some feedback from farmers who say they aren’t quite sure what would be involved.

“We will have some meetings about it later on,” he said.

Shelby County Farmer Ray Tucker said he had done some research online about growing industrial hemp and he has some concerns.

“It takes special equipment to cut it, to harvest it and then to bale it up,” he said. “You know, with some of the balers we use on the farm now, the big square balers or the roll balers, is that stem too tough for that equipment? There’s just so many unanswered questions about hemp that I just don’t know about.”

Hornback said he has heard similar concerns from other farmers in the area, and wants to reassure them that it won’t be as difficult to process as they might think.

“The equipment’s not real specialized,” he said. “If you’re going to harvest the seed, you’ll use a combine. Now granted, there are different screens and other things you have to do to your combine to adapt it, just like when you’re running corn or soybeans or clover seed, or something else, there’s different adaptations you have to put on the combine. It would be the same way with hemp seed. As for cutting the fiber, normally, it’s cut with a sycamore, which is something we don’t use much of around here anymore. We used to use them all the time – every farmer used to have one – and we went to disc mowers, but they are inexpensive and sold most everywhere.”

Tucker also brought up the issue of transporting hemp once it’s cut.

“To deliver a mass of product like that just takes a lot of freight,” he said. “On my gooseneck, I can take fourteen rolls, which is about thirty-thousand pounds, OK, and that’s all I can take at one time. I see hemp kind of being about the same way, it’s so hard to transport. And that’s why I think that farmers that are closer to the processors will benefit more than anybody because it would be a short haul.”

Hornback said that currently, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in processing hemp in Kentucky.

“There will be mobile processing for right now. We do have two processors that want to locate here in the state of Kentucky, but right now, for this year, it’s just experimental,” he said. “They’ll [processors] come around to different areas in the state where it’s being grown.”

But despite those issues, there has been interest.

Doris Hamilton with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp coordinator’s office said that at this point, a couple of hundred farmers around the state have expressed interest in growing hemp.

“We have some that have filled out a producer interest application, but there are not any licenses or permits being issued this year for private production,” she said.

“The Farm Bill very strictly limits it to research only, but we are accepting producer interest applications on our Website [www.kyagr.com]. We have near two hundred producers that have returned applications statewide.”

Of that number, two farmers were from Shelby County, she said.

Hamilton said that anyone who wants to submit an applicant would also have the opportunity to be put on a mailing list for updates about hemp research.

Shelby County Extension Agent Corrine Belton said that she has seen very little interest from farmers, but that’s to be expected at this point.

“It’s been kind of a wait and see kind of a posture, because first there was the long delay in getting approval, and of course now the approval is just for research purposes. And then, we thought we were going to get the seed and it got delayed,” she said. “Over the past several years, I’ve had several calls from people who were interested in raising hemp, but I think until we get some research back, you know, it’s been a long time since anybody’s grown hemp in Kentucky and so until we get some hard figures on cost of production, and then the value of the product and how we’re going to be able to market it. There are some questions that have to be answered first. I would say that once the university gets enough data gathered and puts out some significant findings that we will probably do an informational type meeting for people who are interested.

“Overall, I think it will take several year, but our hope is that we can identify a variety that the department of agriculture could make available to farmers next year.”


Research activities

Hornback said that at this time, hemp can only being grown for research purposes.

“Its’ very limited to the amount of seed we can get in, so it’s pretty much confined to the universities this year,” he said. “One problem is there’s not enough seed available, plus the seed that’s out there is not adapted to this specific climate for Kentucky, because we got seed out of Canada, we got seed out of Italy, but we don’t have seed that’s been developed and bred for growing here in Kentucky. The soil types are a little bit different.”

Todd Pfeiffer, department chair at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, a plant breeding and genetics specialist working on the hemp research project, said that so far scientists are trying to identify what types of hemp will grow well in Kentucky.

“We’ve got about two and a half pounds of fourteen varieties that we split among the three locations [Lexington, Richmond and Bowling Green] so it’s about a half acre at each of the three locations, just a rough estimate,” he said. “We want to see if the varieties are adapted to our environment, because it’s my understanding that hemp is very responsive to day lengths, so we want to identify varieties that are adapted to day lengths in the regime of Kentucky and we think that the ones we got from Italy will be of a similar adaptation, so we’re testing those.”

Pfeiffer said that hemp is not being grown in any university near Shelby County, although that could change.

“At some point, the University of Louisville will have a project, but it’s my understanding that they didn’t get the material to get it planted this year,” he said.

David Williams, head researcher for the hemp project at UK, said the first crop was sown recently at UK’s farm at Spindletop in Lexington and has shown promise already.

“We planted some plots Tuesday [May 27] and they had germinated by Saturday, and we’ve had true leaves produced this Monday, so they’re doing very well,” he said. “That’s very species dependent, but as far as I know, it’s not unusual, based on some germination chamber work that we’ve done. It takes up water and germinates very, very quickly, which is very beneficial. I think generally speaking, it’s a positive attribute. It definitely affords increased competition with weeds, which always results in a lesser need for chemical herbicides, which increases profitability, and environmental sustainability, so all of those things are very positive. Those of us that are involved in it [hemp project] are very, very excited.”

Added Hornback: “We are hoping that in the 2015 crop year, that we can acquire enough seed and breed enough seed and the results are good enough from the universities this year that we can start more production next year to some farmers.”