During World War II Kentucky hemp helped support the war effort. The plant's fibers were used for cordage and canvas and other textiles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to plant their fields with the versatile crop, producing a film, “Hemp for Victory,” and posters designed to drive the message home.
Carter County writer Lorie Zientara wistfully recalled visiting friends who lived near Carter City as a young child and watching the hemp plants sway in the breeze. Then, the plant fell out of fashion.
The war on drugs, combined with state and federal restrictions on the cannabis plant – which is in the same family as the THC producing marijuana plant – made it difficult to impossible for farmers across the nation to grow it. In fact, for several years, U.S. manufacturers who wanted to craft products using hemp fiber had to import it from growers in Canada. But all that is changing.
With the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in various states across the nation, which eased restrictions on growing cannabis plants, hemp has experienced a renaissance. The hemp strain of the plant doesn't contain the psychotropic THC found in marijuana plants. Also, because it is grown for the fibers found in the stem and the oils found in the seed (with the exception of CBD strains, which like their marijuana cousins are grown for the flowers they produce), it's better suited to outdoor cultivation and doesn't require the type of security and environmental controls that flower production needs.
“There is nothing harmful or detrimental about the hemp plant,” Hammond said. “It can be used for feed, fiber, fuel and food. It's non-toxic. It conditions the soil. It can be used to build buildings; Levi's is going to start making (blue jeans) out of it. Lego is going to start making Legos out of it. Any plastic that can be made with petroleum oil can be made with hemp oil. This is potentially, and I know I'm dreaming when I say this and it may sound like crazy talk to a lot of people, but this could be the end of big oil and big pharma. This could put the power back into the people's hands. Because we can grow hemp, and we can do anything big oil can do with petrol, and I think there are going to be enough medicinal uses that are covered that it might have some impact on the pill industry. This is the beginning of an agricultural revolution.”
The idea that it's the beginning of a revolution was supported by the number of hemp associated products on feature at the summit, including a pitch in the startup contest from someone producing CBD plants and products, as well as from food producers like Kentucky Dawgs, who make a beef hotdog that includes hemp hearts as an ingredient.
But while it's a versatile and productive plant, there are some high costs associated with it. Because a “Round Up ready” variety of hemp has never been developed, it has to be hoed and weeded by hand like other organic crops.
You can't use herbicides around it without risking the crop itself. Once it grows large enough, Hammond explained, it doesn't really need a lot of weeding because the bushy nature of the plant chokes out weeds. But when it's young, the only currently viable way of tending it is to do so with handheld hoes. This is often done with migrant labor, he said, at a cost of up to $500 an acre. If you're growing 100 acres of hemp, that can run into price tags of $50,000 or more, just to keep it from getting overtaken by weeds.
But Hammond and his partners have developed a solution, the Hemp Hawk. Equally well suited to weeding organic food crops as hemp, the tractor-powered device utilizes a pair of rotating arms that remove weeds and aerate the soil around young plants. Hydraulics in the device allow it to be lowered or raised to deal with variable landscapes and to adjust to the height of plants as they grow.
Instead of multiple individuals with handheld hoes, a single tractor driver and one to four operators on the Hemp Hawk can mechanically handle the weeding.
“This will revolutionize the hemp industry and the organic farming industry, because what this does is eliminate the need for hoeing, but more importantly it eliminates the need for herbicides,” Hammond explained. “This machine not only weeds down the row, it weeds perpendicular to the rows and removes the weeds from between the plants. The way this works is these cutting heads down here swing back and forth, and are controlled by an operator. They widen to go around the plant, and can be closed after you pass the plant to remove the weeds. As they do that they condition and aerate the soil and hill soil up around the plant.”
“This is a two-row machine,” he said, indicating the model they had on the floor of the SOAR Summit. “But we will be manufacturing them as one-row models up to four-row models. We have an order right now for a four-row in Oregon. This machine here, after we leave here, will go to Nashville, to another show, and then will be delivered to South Carolina.”
Future models designed for organic vegetables and taller plants might also allow crops to be weeded from between rows, rather than by straddling them with the tractor and device, Hammond said to judges in the Startup Appalachia pitch contest.
Hammond and the Hemp Hawk took second place in the competition last week, earning them $2,500 to put toward their new company.
Interest in the product is there, Hammond said, and he has several trade shows and conventions on his schedule to promote the product. He's also looking for local welders and fabricators to help them meet the growing demand for their product, which he plans to continue producing locally.
“We've already sold these in Kentucky. We'll be taking machines to Colorado, Kansas, New York. I've got to get them built,” he said. “If I had 100 of them made, I could sell all 100 of them today.”
They have a website, A-1implements.com, where interested welders and fabricators can reach Hammond to apply for work, but he's looking for a local community that would like to help the company grow.
“I want to see what community wants this, is what I'd like to see,” he said. “I'd like to see what communities are interested in having good jobs for 30+ people, and being part of a vibrant growing industry. I mean, the hemp industry and organic industries are going to continue to grow. Hemp has (more than) quadrupled since 2014. It started with 33 acres in 2014 in Kentucky. Now we've got almost 60,000 acres licensed in Kentucky. Depending on who you talk to we're either number one or number three in the nation, in production. Back in 1911 we were producing three quarters of the nation's hemp. We need to be doing that again. The conditions here are ideal for it. We could not only be the bourbon capital of the world, the horse capital of the world, we could be the hemp capital of the world.”
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