David Jackson left the Madisonville mayor’s office nine months ago. These days, his focus has shifted in part from city to country life.
“I’m not much of a farmer,” Jackson said. But he is a principal owner of Hempistry, Inc., a company based on South Main Street that’s involved in hemp production in Hopkins and Christian counties.
Higher interest in hemp brought U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to the Madisonville area Thursday. He moderated a roundtable discussion with an overflow crowd in the conference room of the Don Bowles Corporation near Hanson.
After decades of drag racing and coal mining, Bowles now is into hemp growing. Fields with 69 acres of hemp sit down Lenin Street from his office, with a modified combine for harvesting and warning signs about video surveillance.
Paul was the first U.S. senator to offer legislation legalizing industrial hemp in 2012.
“People were freaking out” at the state legislature, he recalled Thursday. Yet legalization became a reality in the 2018 farm bill.
“People wanted Kentucky to be a leader in producing another cash crop,” Paul said. “And I think it’s going to become that. I think it already is.”
Cash is a big question in the entire business. The Hemp History Week website says retail sales of the crop across the U.S. reached $820 million in 2017.
Jackson was not at Thursday’s roundtable, but he jumped into the hemp production business last year.
“It was good enough for a second year,” the former mayor said without being more specific.
But money for investors may not mean a fast buck for growers, partly because the market is small.
“I got a check out of it,” Muhlenberg County farmer John Rogers said. “But I didn’t grow it this year because it took me about seven months to get a check.”
Money from corn and tobacco crops comes to farmers faster, he said.
Industrial hemp farming in Kentucky began with 33 acres in 2014. This year, the commonwealth approved an estimated 42,000 acres for the crop, along with 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space.
How big is the boom? Consider Hopkins County, where the commonwealth approved four hemp licenses last year. This year, there are 20 — 14 for growers and six for processor/handlers.
Hemp plants have three main parts for harvesting: fiber, floral material and grain. For Jackson, the main interest is grain.
“We’re growing more than anything for CBD oil,” he said — short for cannabidole, a compound in cannabis. “It has lots of medical implications.”
Hopkins County Judge-Executive Jack Whitfield Jr. hopes so. He told the meeting that he’s purchased CBD oil for his twin sister, as she deals with multiple sclerosis.
Some of the oil could wind up at McCoy and McCoy Laboratories in the Madisonville Industrial Park. Its website claims a state license as “Kentucky’s largest private hemp testing laboratory.”
Paul hopes solid parts of hemp plants will be used in other ways. He said cellulose fiber could be chopped into automotive dashboards. Paul said he was surprised to learn later that Porsche began using that concept in sports cars earlier this year.
“We’re all in a learning process,” Bowles said. For instance, the September heat wave likely increased the THC content of his plants.
Hemp production comes with some legal risks. Federal law states that no one can possess raw hemp, plants or seeds without a state license. A processor based in Owensboro handles the hemp that Jackson’s group produces.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) will begin accepting applications for 2020 hemp growing licenses on Friday, Nov. 15. Applications will be available on the department’s website. The deadline is Sunday, March 15, 2020.
The KDA will hold a Kentucky Hemp Summit for growers and processors in Louisville on Wednesday, Dec. 4.