Murray State University began its 2017 hemp harvest with the roar of a combine on Wednesday afternoon at the West Farm. A study is also underway at the university testing hemp as feed for poultry and its effects on broilers and egg-laying hens.
Local hemp farmer Joseph Kelly ceremonially harvested a portion of the farm's five-acre crop with a first: using a combine. In previous years, Murray State's crop was harvested by hand. At this farm, Murray State is running growth trials involving seed and yield rates on four varieties.
After the harvest, the crop goes into a barn while THC levels are tested in Frankfort before heading to the company CV Sciences, which has a partnership with the university, supplying imported seeds and funding for research. The rest of the crop will be harvested in mid-September.
Murray State has taken a leadership position in Kentucky's hemp industry revitalization. Describing the university's quick move to plant the seeds following the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, and state efforts to clear a pathway for hemp prior to the bill, Dean Tony Brannon said, "We were the first legally planted hemp in the United States, May the 12th, 2014. Our seeds come through Customs and we put right here in this very same field." The University of Kentucky was also among the first to plant hemp.
Patrick Hooks is a graduate student working on a thesis project involving policy and production. He pointed to the machine as a significant development for the budding hemp industry. "This is a big deal in this part of the country because this makes the hemp industry what it is.”
Kelly said the combine is made to separate parts of the hemp which can then be sold to different companies interested in specific parts of the plant. He said it's a double cut combine made by John Deere, a T670, with custom attachments on the way from John Deere’s Dutch dealer GroeNoord.
Murray State Hutson School of Agriculture Dean Tony Brannon gathered some of the chaff and fiber on the ground and said an attachment for the combine was coming soon that would have collected the material, sorting through it in his hand, he said it is rich in CBD.
Josh Hendrix is the Director of Business Development for Domestic Production for CV Sciences, a company that sells CBD products around the country and a long-term partner with Murray State, having supplied the seed and funding for research. With regards to the combine, he said “this is how it’s done" and described an optimistic future for the industry. "It's certified seed that grows a lot like this. Big machines harvesting it. Big scale drying facilities and large-scale extractors. And that's kind of the future of hemp. This is going to be a commodity crop just like these other crops you see around here and that's where we think this is going."
For Research Purposes
While hemp is relatively ubiquitous globally and has a deep-seeded history in Kentucky, much of today's research focuses on modern-day 'unknowns.' Much of it involves bringing hemp-specific technology up to speed following a lag period since it's been illegal in the U.S. since the WWII era, due to its connection with marijuana.
Joseph Kelly has a substantial hemp crop of 700 acres and is looking to expand it to 940. Some of the research, he said, is seeing which varieties work best. "We research can it grow here? We've proved out here - you look at this - fairly uniform crop. It grows well here. So that's one part of it. Then we research is there a market for it? We see, will people buy it? What's the economic benefit of this? If people are going to buy it then maybe this is something we want to do because there's tax dollars that come in, there's additional revenue from money being spent in the state."
He also said part of the research is educating people as to what exactly hemp is, referencing confusion over its relationship with marijuana. He said it's not the "cousin of marijuana," as people often describe it, since both hemp and marijuana are cannabis sativa. The difference, he said, is that hemp has significantly less THC.
Research and study on the crop will yield documentation showing the crop is safe, he said. Most people know corn is generally safe to eat, but there is still much to learn about hemp in the modern age.
"We also have to study the market. Does it work best if there's a government base. Does the government say you can grow 500 acres? Or do we see if it's better with an open market where you can contract as much as you want with a company? With a new crop, something new, we've just got to study and figure out what works best," Kelly said. Other research involves developing the farming infrastructure: combines specifically designed for American-grown hemp, weed killers that work with the plant and the viability of the overall market for the product.
Brannon said Murray State's mission in researching hemp is to test things out before they're ready to go out in the field. He said, "The answer to a lot of questions with this crop is we just don't know."
A hemp poultry study is underway in a nondescript white barn at a Murray State University farm complex. Two rows of cages lined with brown chickens take up half of the partitioned space. Whirring fans keep cool nearly 100 chickens who are being fed portions of hemp hearts (hemp seeds without the shell) mixed with their usual soy-based diet. Hemp hearts are considered a nut-like nutritional food for humans, high in protein, Omega 3 and other properties, and imported products can be found in health food stores and ordered online.
Senator Rand Paul was recently in Murray to hear from hemp farmers and processors. In this meeting, hemp as animal feed was described as having significant economic potential for the state.
Murray State Hutson School of Agriculture Assistant Dean Brian Parr said while a poultry study was done in Canada (there was also a study in Germany), this is the first of its kind in the U.S. "Very few places in the U.S. it's actually legal to do this study and Kentucky is one of those. So we're taking advantage of that to learn from what other uses we could get from this hemp crop," He said.
About half of the chickens are broilers (raised for their meat) and half are layers (producing eggs). The broilers are being fed different percentages of hemp mixed with their control feed and their growth rates will be assessed. Many of the layers are on a diet of half hemp and half control feed and their eggs are being studied to determine how much, if any, Omega 3 and CBD oil carries into them.
Cheyenne Hooks is an animal science graduate student who looks after the chickens with another student. She said the chemistry department is analyzing eggs and results may come back in a few weeks. As for predictions, she said she hopes there will be a noticeable difference, but added, "We have no idea. Nothing like this has really ever been done before." She said early, not-scientifically-backed observations indicate that the broilers on hemp diets are showing more growth and layers seem to have larger eggs and "better" shells.
The 12-week study is now in its third week and the study will be replicated several times.