Sunday, February 28, 2016

Business spreads the word about hemp’s economic potential

By Tom Martin

Alyssa Faith Erickson, left, and business partner Kirstin Bohnert
Alyssa Faith Erickson, left, and business partner Kirstin Bohnert

Alyssa Faith Erickson is cofounder of both Kentucky Hempsters and United Hemp Industries. She talked with Tom Martin about the move to bring hemp farming and production back to Kentucky.

Q: Tell us about these organizations. Since you’re a cofounder, who else is involved in getting them up and running?
A: The other half of both businesses is my business partner, Kirstin Bohnert. We’re both from Kentucky. And we recognize hemp as a way to revitalize the economy through agriculture. Kentucky Hempsters is an educational group. We try and educate and get other people involved who don’t know about hemp or are confused about what it is or what it’s not. And United Hemp Industries is an actual processor licensed with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and we will be processing hemp this year for research and development purposes.
Q: Where does the effort to fully legalize hemp cultivation and the production of hemp-based products now stand?
A: Right now, under Senate Bill 50 and the Farm Bill, states who have hemp legislation are allowed to grow under their department of agriculture for research purposes. This will last for 5 years. This year will be the third year Kentucky has had a pilot program growing hemp. There is a federal bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015, that has been introduced in both the House and Senate by Kentucky legislators. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, and Congressman Thomas Massie have all been on the forefront of this legislation.
Q: Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer has expressed concerns that legalizing hemp would make it easy for an unscrupulous farmer to conceal marijuana plants among hemp plants. He wants hemp made distinguishable from marijuana and he wants hemp to contain zero THC, the marijuana component that creates a high when it’s ingested. Can these stipulations be met?
A: I can’t answer those questions for you. I think they’re a little outrageous considering that all cannabis plants contain some component of THC. Eventually, they’re looking to come out with varieties with little to no, but sometimes that THC is going to be inevitable in that variety. And the varieties that we grow, as far as it being distinguishable, the projects that are licensed through the state are registered and the plots are registered. On the flipside, marijuana growers aren’t going to want to put their marijuana plants anywhere near a hemp plant because that will essentially take away the THC from the high THC marijuana plant they’re trying to grow. So, it’s more about assessing the recreational use and where that lies. You know, we look at this as a complete separate issue.
Q: Do hemp and marijuana require different growing conditions?
A: It depends on what you’re growing for. A lot of these projects are studying the growth of the cannabinoids for medicinal use. And in that case, you would grow more like marijuana. You’re growing for the flower, specifically. So, you want the big bushier plants. However, for industrial uses, for fiber and actual seed production, you’ll be growing more as an agricultural crop. You know, more broad field. More acreage and bigger uses long term.
Q: I know the list of potential uses of hemp is pretty long, but if you could give us a short list of uses of industrial hemp that might come into play here in Kentucky if it becomes legal to produce products.
A: We’re really excited about the industrial purposes such as hempcrete, which is hemp concrete. We actually stayed in a house in Asheville, N.C., that was made using hempcrete and it was absolutely beautiful and a great experience to see and feel the properties of the house and experience it firsthand. It’s inspired a lot of what we want to do this year along with animal bedding, animal foods, even cosmetics, body products, lotions, shampoo, conditioners, foods. The nutritional aspect is really exciting. The amino acid profile, the omegas in it. The hemp parts, protein powders, hemp milk. I mean, the list really goes on as far as the potential opportunities of this plant.
Q: What is it about hempcrete that makes it particularly desirable?
A: We’re going to be researching that this year for our own purposes, but it has shown to be fire resistant in a lot of circumstances. It is also carbon neutral and it filters the air and allows the home to breathe. It’s non-toxic and also renewable, and sustainable, and can be grown right in our backyard.
Q: Some manufacturers are actually already using hemp. BMW, for example, is using fibers in door panels and other components because the hemp component is lighter in weight. But where are they getting their hemp?
A: Right now, all hemp has to be imported from other countries. So, Europe for more industrial purposes, Canada for food. China, a lot of our fiber comes from there. So, right now, we’re getting all of our hemp from other countries and that’s why we’re trying to bring this market back to our country.
Q: What kind of interest are you seeing among Kentucky farmers in getting involved in the research phase?
A: I feel like farmers are eager to get involved without really understanding where the industry is. The farmers want an alternative crop. They want a new option, a new commodity to include in their rotations. However, they’re really unaware of where the industry stands in all the components and aspects of actually growing. You have to find seeds. You have to find the equipment. You have to know how to plant. You have to find an end use. You need to find a processor. So, there are a lot of details that go way past just growing hemp and being a hemp farmer.
Q: And at this stage, there’s really no return on investment. Correct? They can’t sell the crop.
A: You can actually sell the crop. However, I don’t think last year anyone made much of a profit. However, farmers were paid. And based on the contracts that they have arranged with their processors and the financial support the processor has (factors into)what the farmer makes. But right now, we’ve seen little-to-no profit, but more so feedback about getting involved and being a part of an industry on the ground floor.
Q: Do you offer consultant services, and how is that going?
A: Yes. I mentioned earlier United Hemp Industries. Last year, we were solely a consultant and worked with a processor here in Kentucky who had four farms across the state and assisted them in finding seed sources, equipment, building relationships, whatever they needed us to do. This year, now that we’re a processor, we’re producing our own research, meanwhile still offering consulting services to farmers and processors coming into the program new this year and are looking for the same assistance that we offered last year.
Q: Is the hemp world a male dominated culture, or are women represented?
A: So far, most of who we’ve dealt with in Kentucky basically have been male. However, the New York Times has released an article about women and the role they’ve been playing in changing the perception of the cannabis plant as a whole, and I feel, if anything, Kirstin and I are catalysts for inspiring women to get involved. We’ve had a lot of females reach out to us who are eager to get involved, but don’t know how. And we’re hoping to offer them those opportunities this year and going forward.
Q: Is there a “next big thing” for hemp in Kentucky or the nation?
A: We’re waiting to get through the research. We’re waiting to get through the next presidential election to see how that goes. That may affect the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which is the federal bill that would remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The research these projects are producing will ultimately help push the federal movement forward on that level and, hopefully, allow Kentucky to eventually grow and have a commercial market.
Alyssa Faith Erickson
Alyssa Faith Erickson

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