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Hemp industry is growing in Kentucky, attracting processors, investment

Martin Smith, CEO of United Global Co-opportunites of Lawrenceburg, checked out a bale of industrial hemp during a Kentucky Industrial Hemp Pilot Programs press conference in Lexington on Tuesday.
Martin Smith, CEO of United Global Co-opportunites of Lawrenceburg, checked out a bale of industrial hemp during a Kentucky Industrial Hemp Pilot Programs press conference in Lexington on Tuesday. Herald-Leader

Kentucky's hemp crop is growing and attracting new investors to the state, according to Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

At a news conference Tuesday in Lexington, Comer announced that 121 participants have been selected to grow hemp this year, including seven universities across the state. There are 36 groups and projects that will grow 1,742 acres this year, he said.

In 2014, the first year in decades that the state grew a legal hemp crop, 20 farmers grew more than 33 acres.

The state's momentum has attracted 24 licensed processors, who are investing in Kentucky, he said.

"With their investment, jobs have been created, jobs are going to be created, and they've signed contracts with family farmers," Comer said. "Hemp equals jobs and true economic growth, which is what we predicted when we launched Senate Bill 50 two years ago."

Among them are the Stanley brothers, who said Tuesday that they will plan to grow hemp in Kentucky for their Charlotte's Web cannabadiol oil, which is used to treat seizures in children.

Joel Stanley, CEO of Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises, said they plan to invest at least $500,000 for the effort this year.

"We want to make Charlotte's Web a Kentucky Proud product," Stanley said. "This year's certainly a pilot year. ... We're looking at introducing our genetic varieties for Charlotte's Web this year and we'll be doing that very soon, actually, and basically hoping to move a large part of our operation here to Kentucky."

Last year, they grew 20 acres in Colorado, and they will grow twice that there this year, he said.

"We'll be growing about 100 acres here in Kentucky," he said. "These are varieties used to create the Charlotte's Web product line."

Kristen Branscum, marketing director for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said that she couldn't provide a definite figure for the industries involved but that "millions" have been invested in hemp production and processing in the state.

An international group, ISA Scientific, will research other pharmaceutical applications for CBD oil and plans to work with medical researchers at the University of Kentucky, said Dr. Perry Fine, medical director for ISA, which plans to focus on ways to treat chronic pain and diabetes.

Andy Graves, a Fayette County farmer who has pushed for more than 20 years for the return of hemp, said he is part of a new company, Atalo Holdings, that is working with another CBD oil company, GenCanna Global, on growing methods and strains.

"You may not believe this, ... but you're standing in the heart of hemp country today," Graves said. "Think about it. Nobody else is doing it. We have bluegrass, Thoroughbreds, and now we have hemp."

Last year, his group grew 25 acres of hemp; this year, 30 farmers will grow 546 acres. Atalo has bought a building — Rickard Seed in Winchester — with GenCanna, which will extract and sell hemp oil.

Kentucky is leading the nation on hemp, said Steve Bevan, chief operating officer of GenCanna Global, which makes CBD.

"Our nursery operations now employ over 40 people," Bevan said. "Our farmers are getting into the fields, cultivating and preparing irrigation as we speak. We're going to grow and process a very significant amount of CBD — cannabadiol— the very helpful molecule that will become the foundation of many, many products.

"We have invested large amounts. The largest transformer in Jackson County was installed just last month. Two weeks ago, we made the largest single purchase ever at the TSC (Tractor Supply Company) store in Paris, Kentucky. And then we had a bigger one just last week."

The companies provided few specifics on their investments, but all said they see this as the beginning of a wave of growth.

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