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CBD Uncertainty: Sales Soar But Science Lags On Hemp Health Effects

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Colten Polyniak with hemp plants, which his family says helped him. Photo: Provided by Adriane Polyniak

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Inside the Bluegrass Hemp Oil store in Lexington, Kentucky, the CBD oils and lotions lining the walls have an origin story — a story of a family’s struggle.

“We took a huge risk, to be perfectly honest, because we didn’t know. We weren’t trying other people’s CBD products that were out there,” Bluegrass Hemp Oil Co-owner Adriane Polyniak, said.

Polyniak’s son, Colten, began inexplicably having violent seizures in 2009 when he was three. He was diagnosed with idiopathic generalized epilepsy.

Adriane Polyniak, posing by her products inside Bluegrass Hemp Oil in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

“Essentially what that means is that he went from zero seizures to hundreds of seizures in a week, and the doctors didn’t know what was causing it,” Polyniak said. “We started a game called ‘pharmaceutical roulette’ — a lot of epilepsy parents are familiar with it — where we try a lot of different types of epilepsy medication to bring seizure relief to our kids.”

The various prescription drugs controlled Colten’s seizures but caused harmful side effects including hair loss, weight gain, and cognitive delay.

Adriane’s family saw on online forums that CBD might be of help for seizures. CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is a compound commonly sourced from the flowers of hemp, a type of cannabis related to marijuana. CBD doesn’t get a user intoxicated, unlike the better known cannabis compound, THC.

Adriane Polyniak’s son, Colten, who suffered from seizures when he was younger. Photo: Provided by Adriane Polyniak

CBD is commonly put into oils and lotions, but some novelty products like CBD in water and vaping CBD have recently been put on the online market.

When Kentucky began growing hemp under a pilot program in 2014, Polyniak’s family tried it. And she said it worked: Colten’s seizures disappeared.

The Polyniaks now want their business to help others with what they say are benefits from CBD.

“I think a lot of people are seeing relief with CBD products, and I think it goes a long way to prove the efficacy of what’s going on and what people are saying,” Polyniak said.

People across the country say CBD is helping them with a wide variety of issues including sleep problems, mental illness, arthritis, skin conditions, Crohn’s disease, and more.

But there is little to no scientific evidence to support these claims. Clinical researchers in the Ohio Valley say there’s still not a lot known about the substance, and some express concern that the CBD business boom is moving faster that the scientific research.

Adriane Polyniak poses with a picture of her now 13-year-old son, Colten. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

Lacking Research

“I think there’s a lot of concern amongst physicians, medical providers and research scientists like myself, that we’re  moving too fast without proper evidence or information,” said Dr. Anup Patel, Section Chief of Pediatric Neurology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Dr. Patel has been involved in several studies the past five years to look at CBD’s effect on various forms of epilepsy. The promising results of those preliminary studies led to a more intensive, groundbreaking study in 2018, where he worked with patients who have a severe form of epilepsy called Lennox–Gastaut Syndrome.

The study results showed patients saw a median reduction in seizures of more than 40 percent. Months later, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first CBD-sourced drug, Epidiolex, because of that study. It remains the only FDA-approved CBD drug.

Yet beyond epilepsy, CBD research is still very new.

“There is potential benefit for certain types of patients with seizures or epilepsy. Beyond that, we have no idea. There aren’t any good studies using CBD in other areas,” Dr. Patel said.

Dr. Patel is referring to the current lack of “double-blind” studies, which are considered the most legitimate among researchers. Double-blind studies are where both the researcher and patients don’t know who is and who is not receiving the drug being studied.

This helps control for the placebo effect, a phenomenon where an individual may experience benefits because of their belief in a treatment, not because the treatment is actually working.

Dr. Alex Straiker, an Indiana University professor whose primary focus is studying cannabinoids’ effects on the brain and eye, is one of many researchers who think the hype and media coverage surrounding CBD could contribute significantly to the placebo effect.

Bottles of CBD Oil on display at Bluegrass Hemp Oil in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm on one hand, from the public and manufacturers, to market this. It’s kind of a bonanza mentality,” Dr. Straiker said. “The whole process of science is that you have to have multiple studies, and they have to be well done. A lot of [the claims] you have to take with a grain of salt.”

Studies Underway

In the meantime, researchers worldwide are getting busy. Human trials, some of them double-blind, are being conducted to determine CBD’s effects for a variety of issues, from cancer therapies to Parkinson’s disease.

Some preliminary CBD research has shown promising results toward CBD’s potential anti-inflammatory properties and how it affects brain chemistry, helping people with issues including anxiety disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and quitting tobacco.

Yet research on CBD’s potential side effects is also surfacing: a recent Indiana University study that Dr. Straiker led indicated that CBD could increase the risk of glaucoma.

West Virginia University dermatologist Zachary Zinn helped conduct one of these new studies. His study looked at CBD’s effect on three patients suffering from a  rare skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa that causes severe blistering and extreme pain.

“The improvements the patients noted was marked,” Zinn said. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m having a little less pain.’ It was, ‘I no longer require morphine for my dressing changes.’”

Zinn thinks CBD is relatively safe to ingest in small doses, and he’ll tell patients that if they inquire about it. But he isn’t actively recommending it to patients because there’s still little clinical research.

“To think that it’s going to be a wonder drug for all the things patients are reporting, that benefit in, is probably not going to happen,” Zinn said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not effective, but it equally does not mean that it is effective.”

Pushing Forward

The expanding Ohio Valley hemp industry is pushing forward despite a lack of scientific backing. Roger Hayes of Louisville-based Green Remedy, a CBD product wholesaler, said clinical studies matter to verify their products’ value.

Like other CBD companies, Green Remedy doesn’t make any claims about CBD’s effects because they’re not approved by the FDA. But he said the company doesn’t necessarily need clinical studies or the FDA’s approval to be confident the products work.

“The [studies] on what the therapeutic effects are going to be, that takes years,” Hayes said. “America doesn’t need to wait that long to determine that something that has been around for thousands of years that people take for various reasons — we shouldn’t have to wait that long.”

Many in this expanding industry, including Hayes, want the federal government to hurry up with regulation, regardless of studies.

The FDA said in December that CBD in food products is still illegal without FDA approval. Ohio stores selling CBD food have been raided.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is one state government official in favor for approval of CBD-infused food because of the boost it could give to regional hemp farmers.

“We don’t want to regulate hemp to death in America now that it’s finally legal,” Quarles said. “Because a lot of folks are making investments right now, we’re hoping CBD can be marketed as a healthcare supplement.”

Yet some in the industry are more hesitant. Matthew Smith is a licensed massage therapist in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who uses CBD oil to ease muscle pain and arthritis in his clients.

“Anecdotally, there’s a lot of people that it’s helped,” Smith said. “It is possible that we’ll find that it’s overblown, or that there are a lot of cofactors that go into making it more useful, or making it more safe. There’s still a lot of science to be done.”

The first FDA public hearing on CBD-infused food is scheduled for late May.

Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Mary Meehan contributed to this story.

Agriculture

USDA Researchers Seek Help from Union on Trump Restrictions, Relocation

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Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue meets with National Association of Farm Broadcasting members in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters, Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2017. Moderating the meeting is NAFB President Max Armstrong. Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says.

USDA Economic Research Service employees are seeking union representation to help them deal with Trump-administration changes including a restriction on releasing research without clearance from Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office, according to a union representative.

“The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees.

“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”

Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.

“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”

ERS employees are also concerned about USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate ERS from the Capital region.

ERS conducts research on agricultural economics, rural development, demographics, and a host of other topics. The Daily Yonder frequently uses ERS reports and data.

Former ERS administrator and 29-year employee Katherine Smith Evans shared these concerns in testimony presented to the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee on March 27.

Smith Evans said putting ERS under the supervision of the USDA Chief Economists’ Office instead of its current place within the Research Education and Economics Mission Area of USDA will damage the agency’s scientific credibility.

The change “reduces assurances of the scientific integrity and objectivity of ERS statistics and research, and threatens the accuracy of its critical statistical products,” she said.

In a related move, the Washington Post uncovered a July 2018 memo written by acting USDA chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young mandating that researchers include the following statement in their reports published in scientific journals: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

Winch, the union representative, said the ERS reorganization is unlike any other he’s seen at USDA. “This move seems designed to be as disruptive as possible, to be very high-handed, to not be democratic in process,” he said. “That’s a trend, really, throughout the Trump administration.”

He said the relocation is occurring “without appropriate Congressional oversight and input, without regard to the lives and families of employees, without a stated reason.”

At the March 27 meeting of the House ag committee, Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said USDA had failed to provide a cost-benefit analysis to back up its claims that relocating the agency will save money.

“It’s very unlikely that this move will be a cost savings for the government,” Winch said.

USDA is supposed to announce the relocation plan on May 15, two days after the ERS unionization vote.

AFGE has also submitted a petition of interest for USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees to form a union. Winch said the NIFA union vote should occur in late May or June. Like ERS employees, many NIFA employees are likely to be relocated outside of Washington, D.C.

NIFA supports research, education, and extension activities through three primary funding mechanisms – competitive grants, formula grants, and non-competitive grants. “We fund and provide leadership for research, education, and extension programs that address national agricultural priorities,” the NIFA website states.

In written statements, Secretary Perdue has said moving NIFA and ERS save money and put the agencies closer to “stakeholders.”

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers,” Perdue said, according to a March 12 press release.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Agriculture

Sweet Equity: Ohio Valley Farmers Tapping Into Tradition

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Eastern Kentucky’s steep terrain helps capture sap efficiently, explains Seth Long. Photo: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

When Seth Long first began experimenting with maple syrup production, he tapped hollow pegs called spiles into individual trees, collected drips of sap in milk jugs, and carried each gallon down the steep mountainside on foot.

Listen to the story.

Now, Long rides an open-air buggy up muddy switchbacks to a 500-gallon collection tank from which translucent blue tubes branch out like arteries. There, gallons of sap accumulate from Long’s 270 maple trees before they flow through those tubes 900 feet down the mountain to Long’s grant-funded sugar shack. A shared-use reverse osmosis machine removes most of the water before the sap enters the evaporator to boil for hours until it turns into thick, dark maple syrup.

“Some of the sap is travelling 2,400 feet before it gets down to our evaporator,” Long said.

Maple sap flows through tubing on Long’s farm. Courtesy: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collecting sap the old-fashioned way, 14 gallons of sap was a big day, Long said. Now, three seasons into mechanized production, Long estimates his network of tubes, tanks and gauges can process 800 gallons per day.

“When we were introduced to the tubing, it kind of changed everything,” Long said. “Now I can get sap off that tree up there way on that hilltop and never touch it until it’s down at the evaporator.”

Long is the president of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, a year-old group of maple syrup producers hoping to put the sweet concoction on the map in the Bluegrass State. Long and his wife Sheryl run the 50-acre SouthDown Farm in Letcher County. The pair sells vegetables, jams and baked goods at local supermarkets and to individual buyers. Long said that in 2018, with 200 taps operating, the family produced about $3,200 worth of finished maple products. It’s far from enough to sustain a family, but it’s extra income at a time of the year when not much else is happening on the farm.

“What we’re doing here in eastern Kentucky with maple syrup is kind of calling back a distant memory,” Long said.

He and other maple producers in the region view maple syrup as more than just another crop. For them, it’s one sweet part of a new, decentralized economy that’s capitalizing on a long tradition.

Necessity to Choice

Appalachia has a deep history of small-scale agriculture, from regional crops like sorghum to the cultivation of heirloom beans. Historians say maple production in the Ohio Valley dates back to Native American communities tapping maples long before the arrival of Europeans. Ohio Valley residents regularly tapped maples for personal use through World War II, when sugar rations made syrup a valuable commodity.

“Some of that has been lost,” said Kathlyn Terry, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.  “I’ve heard people share, ‘I’m not ever breaking beans. I’m not going to do it, because I don’t have to.’ And that was a sign of success, that you didn’t have to.”

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a nonprofit organization that uses agriculture as a means of economic development in the Appalachian region. Terry said she’s excited about the potential of non-timber forest products for hilly, forested regions like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Maple syrup is a non-timber forest product, as are herbs, ramps, and mushrooms.

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commericial. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commercial.

Terry pointed to a revival of traditional agriculture and a new appreciation for Appalachian cuisine, with books like Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals” giving renewed importance to traditional foodways. “Now we’re seeing people recognize, ‘Wow, we really lost something by stepping away from that.’ And in addition to losing the skills and the knowledge, they lost a connection to their history.”

SouthDown’s Seth Long agreed. “They did it in the old days out of necessity. What if we did it as an economic driver?”

Long’s maple stand sits atop an old surface coal mine site. Maple trees are faster-growing than some other local tree species, so they’re often the first to reach maturity on abandoned mines. Long finds satisfaction in doing small-scale agriculture on land that was once home to an extractive industry.

Long said even a few decades ago, most people dismissed farming as unnecessary in eastern Kentucky, but now there was more openness to a diverse economy. “This is something we can do that can make a real difference, that can have a real economic impact to the region.”

Big Potential

Northeastern states like Vermont, New York and Maine produce the vast majority of American maple syrup. Ohio produces far less, but still consistently ranks among the top maple-producing states in the country, with 708 producers reporting in the last agriculture census.

(Experts say there are likely far more small-scale producers, since they are less likely to be counted in official data. All that makes tracking maple production a particular challenge.)

West Virginian producers are building an agritourism economy around the novelty of the seasonal crop. And producers in Kentucky are just beginning to explore how big maple could be.

Shad Baker, the agriculture extension agent in Letcher County, Kentucky, was always looking for ways to make the best of eastern Kentucky’s hilly, forested terrain. He knew that agriculture in Letcher County would never be large-scale, high-volume production, but rather multiple niche crops that didn’t need much flat land.

“My mom worked in the mines,” Baker said, “And we had this old mining sticker that said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Well, maple syrup is a great example of a bird in the hand.”

Although Kentucky and West Virginia are not traditional maple country, the particularities of the landscape make the crop an unlikely fit. The steep grade means there’s no need for the costly vacuum systems often used in more traditional maple states like Vermont and New York.

Sap flows when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so Kentucky and West Virginia have a longer production season and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And, Baker said, maples release sap in January and February, a time when a small farm operation wouldn’t traditionally be able to turn a profit.

“I always tell people they can put a TV in their sugar shack and watch UK basketball while they evaporate,” Baker said with a laugh.

There are downsides. Appalachia’s impressive biodiversity means maple trees are more spread out among other species, requiring more effort to connect them to one another. And critically, sap from maple trees in Appalachia has a lower sugar content than sap from trees in traditional maple country, which means producers have to spend much more time boiling the sap or invest in an expensive reverse osmosis machine. A particularly low-sugar season can devastate profits.

In rural Letcher County, with its population of about 22,000, Baker estimates there are about eight producers in the county alone who were on their way to having commercial-sized operations, which is generally understood to be 500 taps or more. As many as 12 more maple syruping as a hobby, and that’s fine, Baker said. Maple syrup doesn’t have to be for everyone.

“It’s better for us in the long run if we’re diversified,” he said. “That way if the market changes or you lose your competitive advantage, then you’ve got other things to fall back on.”

Baker teaches maple producers to make value-added goods like maple candy, which can triple the value of a gallon of syrup. His office has purchased processing equipment to help producers make syrup at scale without investing too much money up-front. He wants to encourage hobbyists just as much as professionals like Long. “Maple syrup could easily be 50 percent of the ag output in Letcher County,” he said.

Producers in West Virginia open their sugar snacks in a state-wide agritourism event. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Maple Days

Across the state line in West Virginia, maple producers have capitalized on maple syrup’s niche appeal to create Maple Days, a popular agritourism event where farmers across the state open their doors to share their knowledge, sell their goods, and spread excitement about the new industry.

At Flanigan Family Maple in Prichard, West Virginia, Rich Flanigan has scaled up from a few hand-tapped trees to a 470-tree operation, and plans to grow to 1,000 taps next season. A full-time forester for a land-management company, Flanigan processes sap on nights and weekends during maple’s short production season. In a full day, he could process up to 2,000 gallons of sap, or roughly 50 gallons of syrup.

At Flanigan’s Maple Day open house, visitors mill about, peering into Flanigan’s evaporator and gushing over samples of homemade maple pies and cookies. Flanigan takes guests on tours of his operation. But the most exciting attraction is the cotton candy machine, where maple sugar enters and puffy clouds of spun sugar emerge. The machine has paid for itself multiple times over, Flanigan said; the cotton candy is a best-selling, value-added product.

Value-added goods like maple cotton candy can triple the profit from one gallon of syrup. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Indeed, fellow maple syrup producer Greg Christian comes up the hill from his own maple day event, a pancake breakfast in a local church. Christian has sold out of cotton candy and needs to buy 10 more bags for his guests.

“This industry is a labor of love,” Christian said. He works full-time as an engineer, but he says the profits from his maple syrup and honey operations add significantly to the family’s income.

For him, turning a hobby into a business was worth it for the joy it brought his family. He loved spending quality time in the sugar shack with his father, and was excited about sharing the experience with his young daughter as she grew up.

Taking Root

Seth Long says the next step for the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association is to get Kentucky added to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s maple syrup program, which would formalize the crop as part of the state’s agriculture output.

But following the 2017 national agricultural census, six states with higher production than Kentucky, including Ohio and West Virginia, were slated for removal from the program because their production numbers were too small.

Charmaine Wilson, state statistician for the USDA’s West Virginia statistics office, said production is growing “slowly but steadily” in the state, but West Virginia still accounts for a small percentage of the country’s total supply. Removal from USDA statistical programs is routine for niche crops.

Wilson acknowledged the loss of up-to-date data could be a challenge for producers. “Data is basically the info you need to put in a grant to justify getting money you need for a program. Data lets the legislators know how relevant a crop is in West Virginia. Data gives you that drive to get what you want when it comes to making laws.”

Maple syrupers in the Ohio Valley don’t expect maple syrup to single-handedly solve the region’s economic woes, but view the product as one part of a diverse, sustainable economy.

Maple syrup is “renewable, it’s long-term, it’s reliable, and it’s non-extractive,” said Letcher County’s Shad Baker. “This can’t be taken from us.”

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Agriculture

Hemp’s Heyday: It’s Finally Legal. Now, Can Ohio Valley Farmers Cash In?

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Doug Flight watches a camera crew shoot his first hemp product ad. Photo: Glynis Board, Ohio Valley ReSource

Inside Winkin’ Sun Hemp Company in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, store owner Doug Flight tries to position himself in front of a camera crew.

His experience with growing and selling hemp spans years. But memorizing lines for what he says could be the first hemp TV commercial in the state is another issue.

“I know, I grow,” Flight says to the camera. “Is that it?” Flight asked.

“It’s ‘I know because I grow,’” someone with the camera crew said back.

Flight has wanted to shoot a regional television commercial for his hemp business since 2014, when he was one of the first nine people in West Virginia’s pilot hemp program.

But local television stations turned him down because hemp was still illegal under federal law.

Hemp is a type of cannabis that has a centuries-long history in the Ohio Valley, particularly Kentucky, where it was used to make rope and fabrics. Today it is used to make products ranging from shirts, protein powder, pasta and herbal remedies high in cannabidiol oil, better known as CBD. The oil is concentrated in hemp flowers and touted for benefits for anxiety, inflammation and other ailments.

CBD oil from hemp on the shelves in Winkin’ Sun Hemp Company. Photo: Glynis Board,Ohio Valley ReSource

“Unfortunately, the products haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so we cannot make any medical claims,” Flight said. “All people can do is go online and listen to other people’s testimonials.”

Hemp was illegal because it was considered a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency, lumped in with LSD, heroin and marijuana, a related species.

The 2014 Farm Bill gave states the ability to start industrial hemp pilot programs to research the crop with strict regulations to follow, and Kentucky and West Virginia created their own versions.

When the president signed the 2018 Farm Bill on December 20th, hemp left the list of controlled substances, redefining it as a legal crop. That will ease large-scale production, and make growers eligible for research grants and crop insurance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For Flight, the federal legalization of hemp meant television ads across the Ohio Valley, banking opportunities, and much more.

“It’s going to allow me to get the message out about agricultural and industrial hemp, the products you can make from it, considering in the background I have been involved in growing hemp here for my fourth year now,” Flight said. “As of the last month, I’m being bombarded with propositions from merchant services, banking, all kinds of offers to open accounts with them.”

Along with retail stores like Flight’s, state data show Ohio Valley interest in growing hemp has shot up dramatically.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture says grower applications approved for 2019 almost quintupled from 2018, from 210 to 1035 permits issued. In West Virginia, approved grower applications increased by four times on a smaller scale in 2019, from 46 to 199 permits.

Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Overall, Kentucky officials approved 42,086 acres for hemp harvest, the most in the nation, and a large leap from the 16,100 acres approved last year. Colorado, the state with the second largest amount of approved acres for 2019, has 31,670 acres.

Regional advocates say hemp’s new, legal status is driving the sharp increase in interest. But multiple hurdles, from planting to state policy, still remain.

Growing Pains

The USDA says the U.S. hemp market was worth $820 million in 2017.

Yet assistant dean of Murray State University’s Hutson School of Agriculture, Brian Parr, said most of the money and interest he’s seen from Ohio Valley hemp farmers is in making CBD oil.

Parr said one obstacle to profitability is that farmers have yet to find a way to efficiently harvest hemp flowers besides cutting and handpicking them.

“So we’ve seen machines shipped in from Europe. We’ve seen headers from combines that were brought in too, that were supposed to be designed for hemp harvest, that haven’t worked,” Parr said.

Hemp seeds can now legally travel across state lines. Photo: Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource

He said the growing hemp industry has mostly relied on the existing labor of the tobacco industry in western Kentucky to help harvest CBD. But he warned this long process has mainly remained profitable because profit margins for the oil have remained high.

“At least in the short-term, the promise has been a very high return on the CBD varieties if they can be harvested, if they can be dried and if they can be extracted in a timely manner,” Parr said. “And those are three very big ‘if’s.’”

Parr said he thinks investing in hemp right now is risky because promised safety nets under the new Farm Bill, such as crop insurance, are probably still a year away. But that hasn’t stopped Ohio Valley farmers and some state government officials from charging ahead.

In State Hands

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, states have to submit plans to be approved by the USDA on how commercial hemp will be regulated. For example, federal regulations require THC levels of hemp to be tested below 0.3 percent. THC is the compound in cannabis that causes intoxication.

Kentucky didn’t hesitate in submitting its plan first, on the same exact day the 2018 Farm Bill was signed in December.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles argues the state pilot program already meets federal regulations stipulated by the USDA and that they want to keep moving fast on hemp for the future.

“We are going to be a resource for the United States Department of Agriculture, and we look forward to help in building a national framework. But for 2019, Kentucky will not be sitting on its hands,” Quarles said.

One advantage for Kentucky is that it has been able to fund four full-time employees dedicated to the program thanks to thousands of dollars in fees collected from hundreds of growers.

West Virginia Agriculture Commission Kent Leonhardt said in an opinion piece that in comparison to Kentucky, the Mountain State’s industrial hemp program is lagging, with only $9000 of support. He called on the state legislature to put more funding into the program to keep up.

In Ohio, Farmers Union President Joe Logan complains that the state is one of nine that never passed legislation for a hemp pilot program.

“Right after we got that farm bill passed, I called down to the [Ohio] department of agriculture and asked ‘Who’s your point person on this?’” Logan said. “And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have one.’”

Logan said he’s hopeful a push for state legislation will come this year now that hemp is no longer a controlled substance. As much as he considers Ohio to be a leader in many agricultural industries, he said Ohio state lawmakers in general haven’t seen the potential in hemp like the rest of the Ohio Valley.

A hemp farmer in Christian Co., KY. Photo: Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource

Hope For Coal Country

At least one eastern Kentucky farmer sees that potential as a way to revitalize Appalachia’s economy.

Pine Mountain Remedies manager Nathan Hall isn’t growing hundreds of acres of hemp like some farms in central Kentucky. Instead, he’s growing hemp on a two-acre plot of land in Letcher County, leased from local community members so that they can be a part of the business, too.

Hall says profit is not his first priority. He’s more concerned with making sure the money made from hemp stays in eastern Kentucky communities that have lost many coal jobs.

He said he’s tired of seeing promised economic development schemes fall through.

“We have these proposed businesses that are going to build a thing on a former strip mine and it’s going to create two hundred jobs, and it just never happens,” Hall said.

He’s hoping that hemp can provide a way not only to make money but to create a stronger community through farming.

“Hemp is definitely a part of it, but it’s almost like a vehicle for how to create opportunities for people in the region who have access to these small, but productive acreages,” Hall said. “To me, that’s a big social impact opportunity to have them work with us.”

Glynis Board of ReSource partner station WVPB contributed to this story. This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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