MURRAY — About two weeks ago, Murray State University graduate student Sarah Forden was joining several other students from the university’s Hutson School of Agriculture at one of the university’s farms in Calloway County.
It was a sunny Friday morning and she was spending most of her time using a long, blue metal object she referred to as a “dibble.” This consisted of using her hands to grab the short handles at the top of the tool with the bottom offering a short extension that presented leverage for her foot to drive the end of the object into the ground.
The goal was to create enough of a hole in the ground to allow for the planting of a seedling. However, this is no ordinary seedling. It is industrial hemp, never before planted on this particular farm, the location of which will remain hidden for this story.
“Oh yeah, I’m excited to be part of this,” said Forden, a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who is involved in this project for her master thesis.
“The only problem is that it’s taking all of my body weight to get this (dibble) in the ground right now. This is tough!”
While the ground was a bit dry and hard on this day, Forden said that did not dampen her enthusiasm for the project.
“It’s my interest,” Forden said of hemp, which returned to fields in Calloway County in 2014 after the plant had been mostly banned in the United States since the 1930s, when it became associated with illicit drugs. A close relative of the cannabis plant that produces marijuana, industrial hemp is not capable of producing the same kinds of effects as marijuana.
“I think hemp is a growing industry, not only in food and CBD but also merchandise, such as clothing and industrial uses and I think there’s a lot we don’t know.”
Dr. David Ferguson, who is a veteran professor of the Hutson School, said these particular plots were started by former Hutson School professor, Dr. John Mikulcik in 1997. It just so happened that, on this day, Mikulcik himself decided to come to the farm to see things for himself.
“We started this actually as a way to determine what level of chicken manure we could use on our farm here,” said Mikulcik, who now goes by the title of professor emeritus with his retirement a few years ago. “In other words, we were asking, ‘How much is too much?’and ‘How little could we get by with?’ and ‘What happens with the soil?’
“These were things we’ve learned over the years here.”
Mikulcik also said that tests of the soil have been quite diverse because this particular farm has a variety of different soils.
“We can tell that because soil scientists, over the years, have mapped out soils over this whole farm,” he said of how the plots previously have tested for corn and soybeans. “Now, we’re doing something new, although, frank frankly, I don’t really have an opinion (on hemp). I don’t really know a whole lot about hemp.”
Ferguson said the farm will also be part of a project to test how copper applications influence growth.
“We’re trying to publish findings. We’re studying the residual effects of a single application (of copper) at zero, 10 and 20 pounds per acre, and that was actually done in 1997 as well,” he said. “So we’ve got a little bit of long-term and short-term research plots going.”
Ferguson would not say how much the hemp seedlings cost, but he did say the price is down from last year. Mikulcik said he has seen the prices for most commodity crops drop substantially.
“It’s really a challenge now,” Mikulcik said.
Meanwhile, Forden was still dibbling, and thinking about the benefits of this research.
“There are things we can do to better hemp, so it’s important to keep chipping away with questions and getting some answers,” she said. “You can’t find the answers to the questions if you don’t ask about it.”