Six months after select states were granted the right to cultivate and test industrial hemp, Murray State’s first crops, grown on behalf of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, are ready to be harvested and analyzed.
Grown over the course of three months in an approximately 1.5 acre plot at the Hutson School of Agriculture’s farm laboratory, student workers, under the leadership of Farm Operating Manager Jason Robertson, began to harvest their crop this week.
Robertson said students will cut and weigh hemp plants to determine, among other things, their biomass.
He said the University is primarily concerned with researching the effect of different planting conditions.
Such conditions include row widths and the size of planting populations on the yield, maturity and quality of the hemp.
Logan Karcher, graduate student from Dahlgren, Ill., was one of six students who assisted in the growing of hemp at the University’s farm laboratory.
He said the last two weeks have been especially busy in preparation for the hemp harvest.
“Before I started the job I knew nothing about hemp, how it was grown or planted, what it was all used for or how it was harvested,” Karcher said. “I have been around agriculture and farming all my life and never would have thought it would come a day that you would see hemp out in the field.”
Murray State was the first among five Kentucky universities, including the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, enlisted by the KDA to plant and harvest industrial hemp.
Each university will be studying the hemp for a different specific trait including its use as renewable energy and in medical research.
Tony Brannon, dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture, said it’s appropriate that Murray State should be at the forefront of this agricultural movement as the University’s program is an agricultural leader in Kentucky and because of the state’s history of hemp production.
From 1775 to 1970 when growing hemp was banned after being reclassified by the U.S. as a controlled substance, hemp was a staple crop in Kentucky.
Following this, Kentucky has become the nation’s leading hemp-producing state.
In February President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill, a bill heavily endorsed by Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, which once again allowed states where growing industrial hemp was legal to do so.
However despite passing this bill, the Drug Enforcement Administration still temporarily seized a 250-pound shipment of hemp seed en route to Kentucky in May.
Following a lawsuit filed by the KDA, the DEA released the shipment.
Brannon said hemp is certainly not a replacement for corn, soybeans, wheat and tobacco, Kentucky’s current staple crops, but that there is a niche market for the product in a variety of industries including its use in automobile parts, as a biofuel, as an ingredient in some concrete and as a fiber.
“We import a lot of hemp products already into the U.S.,” Brannon said. “But if it’s going to be grown in the U.S., why not grow it in Kentucky?”
It has not yet been decided what will be done with the hemp after is has been harvested, weighed and tested, but possible solutions include the selling of its seeds and fiber or burning it in the University’s bio burner.
Story by Ben Manhanke, Staff writer