MURRAY – Back in October, Phil McCallon was made aware of an idea.
It seems Dr. Tony Brannon, dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture at McCallon’s alma mater, Murray State University, was in talks with someone about possibly establishing a project involving a material known as HempWood. It would involve the fiber of the industrial hemp plant in the manufacturing of such things as flooring and furniture.
Eventually, McCallon came to be involved in the discussions, eventually to the point that the the person with whom Brannon had been talking – Greg Wilson, owner of the Maryland-based Fibonacci LLC group – made an offer to McCallon.
“He decided to make me his first employee,” McCallon said last week of his new position as the operations manager of the Fibonacci manufacturing facility that is expected to be established sometime this summer in Calloway County. “I think, right now, the idea is for me to be a kind of boots-on-the-ground type who can work with the people here locally, but eventually my role will involve things with the facility, once it’s set up.”
The office of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced that the Murray area was tabbed as the site for the Fibonacci facility last week, saying that the plant will produce about 25 full-time jobs with a $5.8 million investment for the community. An existing 11,000-plus-square foot facility will be utilized east of Murray.
Brannon said last week that the original idea had been to establish a facility somewhere on the Murray State campus, but it was deemed to be too expensive of a proposition.
Meanwhile, McCallon was getting to know Wilson and he said he finds the company’s owner to be someone with a big idea who is going places, particularly at a time where hemp is gaining momentum in Kentucky.
“It’s been a good relationship so far. I think he’s quite up front and honest about what he’s trying to do, but he has a pretty good track record too,” McCallon said. “He’s been involved in the bamboo flooring industry, and that’s some of the hottest material on the market these days. However, what I’ve come to learn is that the fiber part of the hemp plant is very similar to the bamboo, so that leads you to believe that this is going to have a lot of possibilities.
“You also like how hemp really seems to be taking off, but what I think is good for us is that this uses the fiber part of the hemp. Right now, a lot of the attention is going to the hemp oil. Not much attention is going to the fiber, so this is something that is kind of new.”
Wilson is overseas involved with activities related to the HempWood development and could not be reached for comment. McCallon said he expects Wilson to be in Calloway County soon to begin work on preparing for the existing building to be transformed into the first manufacturing facility not only of its kind locally but anywhere in the United States.
Fibonacci Marketing Director John Crye said last week that this was something with which he wanted to be part when he first learned of it four years ago. He said nothing has changed.
“This is an innovative, new product that is going to get people’s attention,” Crye said of having seen the hemp plant up close when he has accompanied Wilson to Murray to work with Brannon. “Not only do the stalks look like bamboo, but they are as hard as bamboo, and when you think about how hemp is starting to be grown (after growing the plant was outlawed in the 1930s because of its association with its cousin marijuana), there is going to be an abundance available, and that leads to a great yield and lots of available material.”
In 2014, the first industrial hemp crop to be planted in the United States was established in Calloway County through a pilot program Murray State spearheaded with strong assistance from then-Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. That was on a very limited basis, as the plant was still outlawed at the federal level.
That changed in December when Congress drafted a new farm bill that included the legalization of industrial hemp. Brannon said last week that 10,000 acres are now being farmed in Calloway, Graves and Marshall counties alone. Current Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has stated that permits for growing hemp in the commonwealth have tripled for this year as pilot programs have now become full-fledged opportunities.
“I remember that day in December,” Crye said. “(He and Wilson) were both watching the cable news channels keeping a close eye on it, and even though we had a pretty good idea how it was going to go, it was a cool wave of fresh air that we breathed when we learned it had passed.
“It’s just something that makes sense. It’s a sustainable crop with many, many uses.”
When it came to Fibonacci coming to Murray, one idea prevailed.
“It didn’t make any sense at all to ban it, especially in Kentucky,” he said. “Now it’s back where it belongs.”