MURRAY – After some three years of research, Murray State University began harvesting its latest 5-acre hemp crop with a ceremonial event Wednesday afternoon.
Calloway County hemp farmer Joseph Kelly, who will soon have some 900 acres of the crop, manned a combine to demonstrate to onlookers how the process worked.
“We’re researching if it can grow here,” Kelly said. “You look at this – it’s a fairly uniform crop. It grows well here. Is there a market for it? What’s the economic benefit if people want to buy it? It’s something we want to do… that’s what we’re researching, and we’re also seeing different varieties.”
Murray State’s plot, located at the university’s West Farm, is home to four different varities of hemp. The pilot program started in 2014 after federal legislation permitted hemp research in a handful of states, including Kentucky.
Kelly said he believes misconceptions about the crop and its relative, marijuana, are a major hurdle in making hemp more mainstream.
“I have people thinking ‘Oh, this is the cousin of marijuana,’” Kelly said. “They’re both cannabis sativa. One has THC and the other has significantly less, or hardly any at all. I think a lot of it is informing the public that if we research it and we study it – we have research papers, trials that show this is safe, and we don’t do that for corn because everybody knows you can’t get high off corn. Since it (hemp) hasn’t been grown for 50, 60 years, there’s so much we don’t know about the varieties.”
Before jumping into the combine for the demonstration, Kelly praised hemp’s flexibility, compared to other staple crops like soybeans and corn.
“Corn is going to take more nutrients out of the soil than any other crop,” Kelly said. “I’ve had people compare hemp to soybeans, wheat, but the return you’re getting... instead of harvesting the kernels or the grain from corn, we’re taking the leaves, grain, fiber, roots, so when you can take five different things from one hemp seed – you can’t do that with corn.”
Kelly harvested just a portion of the test plot, with the rest of it to be done in the coming weeks.
Tony Brannon, dean at Murray State University’s Hutson School of Agriculture, spoke after the harvest.
“It’s (hemp) been a very important crop in the history of Kentucky and of our country, Brannon said. “But it was illegal for a good number of years.”
After the ban, hemp first gained traction in Kentucky when the state passed a legislative bill that would allow research of the crop on Kentucky Department of Agriculture-approved farms, contingent on a second “farm bill” that would give the green light in other states. Both bills passed in 2014.
Brannon praised U.S. Congressman James Comer, who was the state’s commissioner of agriculture at the time, for his work in bringing hemp back into the discussion.
“We were the first legally planted hemp in the U.S. May 12, 2014,” Brannon said. “Our seeds came through customs and we put them right here in this very same field. The first year, they got the seeds at Murray at 5 p.m. and at 7, we had them planted.”
Murray State grad student Patrick Hooks is working on the plot research as part of his thesis. He said he believes his studies are part of the groundwork for the future of hemp in the agriculture industry.
“This is all for research purposes, and we’re researching seed rate and yield rate,” Hooks said. “This is a very good crop for Kentucky.”
He said that while Murray State doesn’t sell its crop for profit, it receives research grants from CV Sciences, a manufacturer of cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are often hemp-based.
The hemp harvested Wednesday will be shipped off to Frankfort for testing to determine the crop’s THC levels.
“We have to export it to Canada then pick it up in Frankfort,” Hooks said. “We have to have special permits to even haul this stuff.”
At the same time, the university is testing further hemp research by feeding chickens hemp seeds rather than soy as a protein supplement. Brian Parr, who is assistant dean of MSU’s ag program, said that study is specifically testing Omega-3 and CBD levels in the eggs of those hemp-fed chickens.