MURRAY — From the start of leading the charge to return the Swann Tobacco Warehouse to being one of the most important structures within the city limits of Murray, Joe Darnall of Black Pearl Properties has preached one theme.
“We’re tying the past to the future,” Darnall has said. Nowhere is this more true than with the flooring for the four-level building at the intersection of Poplar and L.P. Miller streets.
Most of the wood was rescued from the building before renovations began a year ago and was kept in a nearby warehouse, waiting for the time those pieces would return. Now, with the project very near completion, the idea of tying the past to the future has taken on a new meaning.
The flooring is being finished with material that screams this theme, in fact: hemp seed oil.
“Part of what I do for the company is understanding new investment opportunities, and we’ve done that pretty well in real estate and we’re taking on a project like this. We’ve also gone into agriculture,” Darnall said a few weeks ago before leading a tour of the facility for the Ledger & Times. “So we started looking at hemp as a possible investment area (after Murray State University became the first entity in the country to plant industrial hemp seedlings in about 80 years in the spring of 2015). We figured that we could come into some early seed money and reap rewards with it, but we also started thinking, ‘OK, what are the products you can make with hemp?’ And we found there were many.
“So we’re hearing about these and someone told us, ‘Oh and the oil is great for finishing wood.’ We thought that was pretty interesting, so with me as developer for this project, I started thinking that maybe I could get some hemp seed oil. I was able to secure some, took some of the flooring that had been exposed to water and 100 years of wear and tear and put hemp seed oil on it … and it was much better than what we had anticipated. It was fantastic, as a matter of fact.”
That was for only a small sampling. Darnall said that after viewing the results, he wanted to finish all of the flooring inside the warehouse with hemp seed oil. To do this, he had to find a supplier, with a lot more of the material. He decided to make a call to an old friend, Brent Burchett, a fellow Calloway County High School alum, who is the director of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Division of Value-Added Plant Production, to see if he had an idea of any farmers in the commonwealth who could help with this idea.
Burchett supplied a list, and it included someone from only a few miles east of Murray, Joseph Kelly, a Murray State graduate.
“I do have a processing license, so that allows me to squeeze the oil from the plant,” said Kelly, who became interested in producing hemp seed oil about four years ago. “I would go to the Capitol in Frankfort as part of a poster program where we showed our results from experiments and I got to work with (Dr. Tony Brannon, dean of Murray State’s Hutson School of Agriculture) and (then-Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner) James Comer with trying to get the state House and Senate to allow hemp production to resume in the state.”
Hemp is still outlawed on a federal level, but pilot programs have allowed for the planting of the crop. A strong push is underway in Congress to lift that ban in the next farm bill. Among the biggest supporters of this are now-Kentucky Congressman Comer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime U.S. Senator from Kentucky.
“It was conservative Republicans in the ‘60s who created the anti-cannabis push (because the plant was lumped into being associated with the version used for producing the illegal drug marijuana), so it had to be a conservative area of the country, with support from Republicans, where the comeback could start. For that, it had to be Murray State,” Darnall said.
“That’s what a university program is for, though, to connect the dots,” Brannon said Wednesday. “I was out there with Joseph the day the first plants were pressed for the oil and I’m glad to see this coming together. We’ve also got lots of other exciting projects happening right now too, throughout this entire area. Someone else who needs to be mentioned with this is Loretta Daniel, who led the Kentucky Innovation Network Office at Murray State for several years and was instrumental in many great projects getting off of the ground, including some with hemp.
In fact, Brannon said the Hutson School will be hosting its Hemp Education Day on Oct. 26, and it will include a visit from Comer, as well as another person who specializes in not only hemp being used as a floor finishing product, but as the base for the flooring itself.
“I’ve had five meetings this week just to discuss things having to do with hemp,” Brannon said. “That tells you that this is something that a lot of people are interested in right now, and a lot of people are keeping an eye on Congress to see if this farm bill is going to go through. That’s going to be a huge deal if they lift the ban.”
Kelly said he also has found a thrill in working on the hemp seed oil with his father, longtime Kelly Farms head Jim Kelly.
“He was OK with me trying it, but he wasn’t too crazy about it because it was so new for us,” Joseph said. “In fact, he really wasn’t too crazy about it after our first year. It was really a flop, pretty much, but it’s been better since then.
It’s really pretty cool. I hadn’t been looking for everybody to come to us looking to buy it. As it turned out, Joe was in line behind others.”
Once Darnall and Joseph made contact, it was the start of a strong friendship.
“He was great from the start,” Darnall said of the Murray State alum. “He immediately said he wanted to help but that he was still setting up and could bring me a gallon. So I took that, used it, and found that this stuff is fantastic.
“Back in World War II, this was a product the government encouraged farmers in the country to grow because they knew this was a great place for it. So, now, you’re taking guys who are experienced agriculturalists, who are smart and know what they’re doing. And now, you’re giving them something that grows well in this area and produces numerous products for a good price.”
Joseph said he is excited to have a part in the renovation of such a historic building in his home area.
“To know that I drive by that building almost every day, one time or another, and something that I’m producing is being used in such a big way for it, yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “Of course I wanted to help (Black Pearl Properties) out with this. Every year, I’ve been more intrigued with where hemp is going and what it can be used for, and this is just one of those things.
“It does create perhaps a chance to work with Joe again, too. Whenever I talk with him, and really, it’s been the case from the first time I met him, you feel his energy for what he’s doing and, when you have someone with that kind of enthusiasm, you know you want to be part of that.”
Darnall said the hemp seed oil application process is quite different from usual wood finishing. Where some of those procedures require wearing protective clothing or masks, the hemp seed oil requires none of that.
“You smear it on with your hands and when you get done, you just wash it off and you’re fine,” he said. “It’s food-grade stuff and the best part of this is that when we open the doors to let our people move in, there’s no wood finish smell. This is going to smell clean and maybe a little woody. It’s going to be nice.”