By DEBORAH BEHRENDS
INDIANAPOLIS — Farmers in Indiana and Kentucky are harvesting thousands of acres of hemp for the first time in several decades. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, Indiana 2019 Senate Bill 516 and Kentucky 2013 Senate Bill 50, a select group of licensed farmers was approved to grow and harvest hemp in 2019.
According to Jamie Campbell Petty, founder and president of the Indiana Hemp Industries Council, 5,500 acres were licensed in Indiana, it's estimated only about 3,500 were grown. She said the numbers are "still fluid and unconfirmed."
A total of 56,000 acres were approved for hemp cultivation in Kentucky for 2019, with about 26,000 planted.
Petty said the harvest is mostly complete and there was definitely a learning curve.
Marty Mahan, president of the Hemp Chapter of the Indiana Farmers Union said he got all his intended acres planted, but was affected by the weather the same as the rest of the agricultural community.
"Fiber harvest is complete and went pretty smoothly. My CBD harvest is 80 percent complete while one variety still needed probably another week," Mahan said.
For many farmers, the possibility of diversifying their farms with the addition of hemp is intriguing during a down economy, particularly. While there are a lot of exciting possibilities, it's not going to be a miracle crop, cautions Alyssa Erickson of United Hemp Industries in Lexington, Ky.
United Hemp Industries is a consulting and contracting company dedicated to the growth and development of the American hemp industry. For four years, the firm has offered a variety of services for those seeking to produce, process, or purchase domestic hemp. As licensed processors under the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, the firm facilitates research projects and farmer relations, while offering various processing capabilities and downstream products through its facilities and partnerships, along with basic consulting for those interested in becoming involved in the re-emerging hemp industry.
The firm also plants and cares for hemp at several historic sites across the Bluegrass State, including Farmington Plantation in Louisville, Ky. Being well versed in the history of hemp in her state, Erickson cautions producers against viewing hemp as a magic pill to solve their economic woes.
She shared some historic insights that she believes may be repeated during the current hemp boom.
The first concerning area is supply vs. demand.
"When there was a strong demand (usually due to loss of imported fibers or war) farmers often oversupplied which resulted in the prices dropping," Erickson said.
Similarly, in today's market farmers may overproduce for CBD.
"In order to create a steady demand for hemp, there must be a diversification in uses and applications," she said.
The second topic she addressed was equipment and technology.
"Hemp labor has been historically very intensive, often as a result of unmechanized equipment - hence the heavy reliance on slavery during the antebellum period. The old hemp brake was a manually operated device and was used as the primary tool for breaking (removing the hemp fiber from the stalk) through the early 20th century.
"Today, the labor (especially for CBD) is particularly elaborate and very similar to tobacco with very few mechanical innovations for harvesting, yet. If the time and money isn't invested in the right equipment, the industry will struggle to keep up using manual labor," Erickson said.
Third is the regulation of the industry.
"The government has ultimately determined the success or failure of the hemp industry since its fruition. From when the first settlers were required to grow hemp by law, to the Controlled Substances Act, the policies and politics around hemp have been a constant factor. We're seeing the same thing today as prohibition comes to an end, yet our officials are still in control via licensing, reports, THC limit, etc. Overregulation or not-enough regulation can have adverse effects on the industry and will continue to play a key role in politics going forward."
A fourth area that demands consideration is transportation.
"Historically, hemp played a large role in the development of transportation and trade routes. Henry Clay's American System was heavily based on his desire to get his crops and products to Northern and Southern markets.
"Today, ideally, the closer the crop is produced to a processor the better. Transportation for large crops/products is expensive, and for crops it can cause deterioration. It's hard for farmers to produce/make fair profit unless they are at least within 50 miles of a processor and can work directly with them," Erickson said.