By: Terry Simpson
Farmers are trying out a new crop all across the country and Monroe County is no exception — welcome hemp.
Driving along Fountain Run Road on the outskirts of Gamaliel, two fields of the new crop line each side of the scenic drive — causing quite a bit of interest. At first glance, they resembled tiny little trees—perhaps a Christmas tree farm?
Upon further inspection, what looks like a tree, the plants are actually hemp, almost 50 acres of the stuff.
The hemp crop, growing on land owned and worked by Marc Burnett and his son, Stephen, is one of a few in Monroe County this year.
The Burnetts have been farming together for years and wanted to try something different this year, as other crops are becoming less and less fruitful, they said.
Marc bragged on his son, “He has done all the homework. He can explain a lot more about it,” noting that Stephen came up with the idea, researched it and put a lot of work into it.
“I had one of the first chicken houses back in 1997 or ‘98, I stuck my neck out. I like trying new things and Stephen is following suit,” Marc added.
Stephen agreed, noting that it was a learning process and he already knew a few things he would do differently in the next year.
Hemp, as Stephen explained, is completely natural and although it seems new — it was actually grown in Monroe County in the 1940s to manufacture hemp products such as rope. However, it has risen in popularity for alternative uses in recent years, championed by then-Commissioner of Agriculture and now Congressman James R. Comer, Jr., of Monroe County.
Hemp is a non-intoxicating Cannabis (a genus of flowering plants) harvested for industrial use of its products, such as food, rope, clothing, paper, housing material, and more.
Stephen continued to note that hemp crops being farmed now are not to be confused with marijuana, or as some refer to the illegal drug, “pot.”
Marijuana is a term used to classify varieties of Cannabis that contain more than 0.3% THC (by dry weight) and can induce psychotropic or euphoric effects on the user.
THC from the marijuana-type of cannabis creates a mind-altering “high” when a person smokes it or uses it in cooking. It breaks down when heat is applied and introduced into the body.
In laymen terms, hemp and marijuana are cousins — but one can give a person a high while the other cannot.
His dad laughs and adds, “It will not matter how much of our plants you smoke, I promise you will not get high.” He explains that their crop has drawn a lot of interest from passersby with people stopping often to ask questions.
It can be confusing and does have a unique smell to it when the wind hits just right, he added. The plants do resemble marijuana but without that THC it is really of no use to those seeking a “high”.
You do have to be licensed to grow it, Stephen noted, “You apply for a one-year license in the fall, and there is a lot of paperwork involved. You must do a background check, make maps and field layouts with GPS coordinates, label all entrances and forward everything to the state police. Law enforcement officials can come in at any time and check it out.”
Stephen noted that while there are several uses for hemp, he decided that the most lucrative use for his would be in Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. “Nothing else is making money right now. Tobacco is dropping, we are losing contacts—this just seemed like a good alternative.”
Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive, meaning that CBD does not change a person’s state of mind when they use it. It does, however, appear to produce significant changes in the body, and some research suggests that it has medical benefits. Due to this, and other uses of hemp, Legislators in Frankfort are pushing it for farmers.
Marc, who had just returned from a soil meeting in the Capitol, noted that not only was Comer active in encouraging hemp production as a crop in Kentucky, but current Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is as well. “In 2014 there were 20 to 30 acres in the state. Now there are 40,000,” he reported.
Stephen noted that he was told that hemp was comparable to tobacco, but he thinks it is a lot more work. “It is a learning process and every farmer, from Virginia to Tennessee, does things differently and have since others began in 2014,” he added.
Stephen continued, explaining that one acre of hemp is equivalent to five acres of tobacco, depending on the plant size and other factors. It also is comparable to tobacco, as it does not like a lot of water.
Stephen learned this fact when the area saw eight inches of rain in the month of June. Luckily, he was using, what his father calls the “Cadillac approach” this year,” which helped with water runoff.
Lining the fields under the plants are rows of white plastic. This allows for water runoff, adding of fertilizer, weed control and anything else the crop may need, through tubes in the plastic. It is more expensive, so the Burnetts may try a more conventional method next year. “We will figure expenses, compare and decide. Next year we may do it like traditional tobacco,” Stephen explained.
He then outlined the process from start to finish, heading back to the greenhouse where his girlfriend McKayla Scott was working on the hemp cuttings.
Scott noted she enjoys working the plants and would like to plant 100 acres next year. “We start with a “mother” plant. They are $3 to buy, so we clone as many of those as we can.”
Stephen said that in two to three months he can get 40 to 50 cuttings per plant, which is about 2,200 plants per acre. Scott demonstrated the cloning process, taking a cutting from Stephen which he had just cut from a mother plant, she cut the leaves off, sliced the stem and cut at a 45-degree angle, dipped it in rooting hormone, then placed it in a tray. The clone will stay in the tray in the greenhouse for three weeks, she said, then be transported to the field.
The Burnetts hire 10 to 20 workers for the cloning process, but the rest of the process they mainly do by themselves, with the workers coming back for the harvest.
The plants have to be grown completely natural, so no pesticides or herbicides can be sprayed. They grow based on the number of daylight hours, rather than by the number of days, like most crops. For this reason, they can be set out at any time.
The Burnetts set out two varieties — one that will be ready for harvest in mid-September and another in mid-November. The first was set out in May and, as Stephen noted, may get too big as it is an aggressive plant and the weather has been perfect for it. Another 14 to 15 acres will be planted in August on the Burnett farm.
The last step in the process is the harvest, which is a lot like tobacco. The hemp is cut, taken to the barn, dried, cut, stripped, bagged and shipped to a processing company in Colorado called High Plains Crop Production. They will extract the oil and sell it.
It will be used in creams, oils, dog treats and even gummies to help with many ailments including memory, sleep, mood, seizures, acne and chronic pain.
Hopefully, the self-proclaimed learning experience will be a lucrative one for the Burnetts and they will continue in their groundbreaking endeavors. If you would like to learn more, watch the Tompkinsville News for an exciting announcement of a possible “open house.”