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WKYT Investigates | The state of the commonwealth’s hemp industry

Experts say the market is correcting and maturing after an initial - and short-lived - industry boom.
Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. (WKYT) - Humble as he is about it, it is clear that Chuck Tackett knows what he is doing in his fields.

“We’re not masters of anything we do,” he said, “but we do understand what’s going on and how to make it happen.”

Tackett, a former state lawmaker, has farmed for 50-plus years now - largely tobacco and cattle on more than 500 acres of land, he said - but it still took him some time to learn how to grow hemp.

“At one point everything was trial and error,” he said, laughing.

He and other hemp farmers have had to break new ground, literally and figuratively, in their efforts to bring back an age-old plant in a new generation.

For decades, hemp had been dormant - and illegal - before being reintroduced and legalized just a few years ago. At that point, many called it the crop of Kentucky’s future, seeing a cash crop that for some farmers could be what tobacco once was.

Initial excitement and early success brought on a short-lived boom - what some now describe as a hemp bubble that burst with a number of companies going under.

Yet now, those who have survived in the industry still believe brighter days are ahead, thanks to a versatile crop that processors are still finding new uses for every day.

Tackett says he started his hemp farm with just 21 mother plants. In the seven years since, the operation on his Scott County farm has grown; at times it will fill his 300-foot-long greenhouse. Now he is raising several different genetics of hemp - all grown from “clones” or clippings of his other plants, not from seeds.

Why? Because Tackett says using clones provides better biomass for extraction for CBD. The bottom line: Tackett has learned what works and what processors want from his plants.

“You need to produce what they’re looking for,” Tackett told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “Because if you’re not you’ll be left behind. And you have to make that change - whatever that change is - you have to make that change.”

Many say that is the spirit needed for farmers to succeed in an ever-changing industry as it looks to mature out of its infancy and find stable footing after experiencing some growing pains.

“I think it’s so important that we continue to approach this curious crop with some caution, and also to make sure that people understand the risk involved with a crop whose markets are still being developed,” said Dr. Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture.

In 2021, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture has licensed 445 hemp growers and 140 processors and handlers. That is down from 970 licensed growers and 178 processors in 2020.

It reflects a national trend, Quarles said, with a decline in license applications in states across the country, part of what he sees as a market correction.

“We know after several years that hemp is not a crop for every farmer,” Quarles said. “But if there’s ever a home for industrial hemp in the United States, it’s going to be right here in Kentucky.”

Quarles, also president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, pushed for changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule on hemp production.

But Quarles says for the industry to continue to grow the FDA needs to provide some regulatory framework for hemp-based products like CBD. In a letter last year to Kentucky’s federal delegation, Quarles decried the “bureaucratic paralysis...hindering Kentucky’s hemp industry” and making it harder on the state’s growers.

Still, Quarles says he is encouraged by Kentucky processors, which reported $130 million in gross product sales in 2020. (In 2019, processors totaled $193 million in gross product sales.)

“It won’t take long, but once people understand that hemp is not this scratchy, itchy, smoke-your-t-shirt product, but it’s actually a high-performance product that sits in the highest-quality materials, is highly sustainable, it’s a wonderful food source, people will very quickly understand this is what it is,” said Eric Wang, CEO of Ecofibre.

The Australian company has several distinct businesses that focus on different lines, such as hemp extract, hemp-based foods and finding ways to incorporate hemp in products like fashion and building materials.

Its facility in Georgetown, which opened last year, tests and processes hemp for CBD products.

Wang says most people are at least aware of the medicinal uses of hemp products now, so he tries to showcase hemp in things like antimicrobial seating, artificial turf, wallpaper and clothing.

“Our goal is to have hemp in literally everything that people do,” Wang said. “Whether it be your food, whether it be your medicine, whether it be your day-to-day things you live with. The result of that, we’ll have a very sustainable planet, we’ll have better performance outcomes people want and we’ll actually have a healthier population.”

To get to that point, Wang says the industry needs hemp classification standards so that manufacturers, processors and growers can all be on the same page.

Wang says right now hemp uses are just scratching the surface. As the market continues to mature, he looks to another signature industry here - bourbon - as his vision for branding Kentucky’s hemp crop.

“People are convinced that Kentucky bourbon is the best bourbon in the world,” he said. “And I think in due course it’s important we’ll find Kentucky hemp will be the best source of hemp for the highest quality products in the world.”

Hemp growers in Kentucky are licensed to cultivate up to 12,000 acres this year.

Back on his farm, Chuck Tackett says he plans to cut back on production a little bit. He says not only was demand down during the pandemic, but too much supply was left over from two years ago.

In 2020, farmers reported growing 5,000 acres of hemp. In 2019 that number was 26,500 acres.

Long term, though, Tackett believes the future for hemp is ripe for the picking.

“There’s just - gosh - there’s just so much you can do with this plant,” he said. “I think that you’ll find that the farmer that has stuck with it, has rode this through the hard side and what not, it will rebound.”

The KDA says 130 of the 445 hemp growing licenses issued this year are for “storage only,” meaning they will market a previously grown harvest.

Kentucky’s hemp program remained in pilot program status this year, allowing the state to set its own rules for hemp production while the USDA ironed out some changes for its final rule. Later this year, though, the state does expect to submit a plan to the USDA for the 2022 growing season.

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