As the number of coal mining jobs continues to decline in central Appalachia, hemp is getting a lot of attention as one way to diversify eastern Kentucky’s post-coal economy. But the region’s burgeoning hemp industry is also riddled with uncertainty. The lack of land suitable for growing hemp, and its association with marijuana pose some significant challenges.
Neil Spears is a resident of Pikeville, Kentucky. He’s one of the pioneers in Kentucky’s burgeoning hemp industry.
On a hot Friday afternoon in September, Spears drives off a paved road, through a creek, and up to his friend’s hemp farm near Pikeville. It’s nestled among the ancient mountains of Appalachia.
“I used to tell everyone in Colorado, they’d talk about the mountains in Colorado, well, you all got majestic mountains, we’ve got beautiful mountains. That’s two different things. Awe-inspiring and beautiful are two different things,” he says.
Spears has a goatee and hair that brushes his shoulders. He walks through the five-acre plot in his beat-up straw hat, watching out for rattlesnakes.
It’s not easy to see the hemp plants. Most of this year’s crop has been choked out by weeds.
“It’s not what I dreamed of,” Spears said as he walked through the field. “But first year out, you’ve got a crop up. Albeit a small crop, we’ve got a crop up.”
Spears grew up in Pikeville, pursued a career as a singer-songwriter, and eventually left to work in the marijuana industry in Colorado.
“A good friend of mine said, ‘Do you want to come home and get ready for what’s coming and start growing hemp?’ I said yeah. So came back last November and here we are.”
Hemp can be used for a wide range of products -- plastics, health foods, biofuels. Spears and his friend plan on selling the fiber part of the crop to a processing facility in North Carolina later this fall.
But the most lucrative product is cannabidiol oil, or CBD oil. Spears is excited about their plan to build a 10,000 square-foot greenhouse to start growing hemp specifically for CBD oil.
CBD is different from THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high. But some studies suggest it can be used to treat epilepsy, anxiety and depression. All these claims need more scientific research, but in the meantime, there’s a growing market for CBD oil.
“I’d like to see eastern Kentucky to be a big grower of hemp, you know, as a whole. This is something that can start making some people some money. I’m interested in helping whoever in eastern Kentucky wants to grow hemp, grow hemp,” Spears said.
But for hemp growers wanting to cash in on CBD oil, there’s risk involved. The hemp strains with the highest CBD levels also have higher levels of THC. And if the THC content is more than three-tenths of one percent, state law requires the grower to burn the crop.
About an hour and a half away from Pikeville, in Jackson, researchers at the University of Kentucky are experimenting with creating hemp varieties more suitable for growing in the state.
University of Kentucky agronomist David Williams inspects one of his hemp research plots at the Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability. The spindly, green stalks and the arrow-shaped leaves give off an earthy, slightly sweet smell.
“I don’t know how tall this plant is, but it was planted at the end of June. How tall would it be if it were planted 60 days earlier? We’ll find out next year,” Williams says as he examines a hemp plant. “The most important part about our work is determining which varieties are best adapted to our latitudes and our climate for optimum yields.”
This research would have been illegal a few years ago.
Hemp has a long history in the United States.
From the sails and rigging on the USS Constitution -- America’s oldest naval ship -- to the canvas on covered wagons heading out west, hemp is deeply tied to our nation’s past.
And Kentucky has played a vital role in that. While some was originally grown on small family farms, the majority of the nation’s hemp was produced in the Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky as a plantation crop.
“Hemp production is very tedious, very labor-intensive. One needs not look very deeply to understand that, that history is inextricably connected to slavery,” Williams said.
Hemp production in Kentucky dropped off after slavery was abolished and cheaper imported fibers became available. Except for a short-lived revival during World War II, hemp production was discouraged and finally banned because of its connection to marijuana.
Although CBD oil from hemp cannot get you high, it was still grouped in the same category as marijuana and heroin.
Then came the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed certain states to grow hemp for the first time in about six decades. A number of Kentucky lawmakers said hemp would create thousands of jobs, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture launched an aggressive research program.
“By most measures, Kentucky leads the nation in industrial hemp research,” said David Williams, the University of Kentucky agronomist. “The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has done a fantastic job managing what anyone would consider a very complex situation.”
And it is complex.
Those who want to grow or process hemp need a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration. And hemp seeds and plants cannot be taken across state lines.
Still, there were about 200 approved growers this year in Kentucky who – in total – planted almost 3,000 acres of industrial hemp. Some was for fiber, which includes everything from T-shirts to dashboards, but most of it was for CBD oil.
Almost all the hemp production was in central and western Kentucky, where the average farm is much larger -- 100 acres or more. In the eastern, more mountainous side of the state, farms are smaller than 10 acres.
“We can’t expect eastern Kentucky and West Virginia to become major contributors to hemp as a commodity crop,” Williams said. “That being said, plant breeding or certified seed production [create] situations where you don’t have to have hundreds of acres to be profitable.”
In other words, Williams says eastern Kentucky doesn't have the terrain to grow hemp for large-scale industrial products. But producers in the region could potentially grow hemp for the seeds or seedlings, and sell those to farmers in the central and western part of the state.
With limited flat land, some entrepreneurs thought former strip mines could become farms.
Nathan Hall is president of Reclaim Appalachia - a nonprofit working to develop economic opportunities on former coal mining land.
“Hemp has this reputation of being a hardy plant that grows just about anywhere … there’s a big difference between a plant that will technically grow anywhere versus a plant that you can get profitable production per acre anywhere based on the type of soils you’re working with,” Hall said.
He tried growing hemp on an old strip mine site, but it didn’t go well.
“There is no topsoil at all. You’re planting into rock,” he said.
Hall says despite the small size of farms in mountainous eastern Kentucky, growing hemp for CBD oil in the fertile valleys could be economically viable … with a couple of caveats.
“We need to get clarity around the legal issues surrounding CBD; that still seems to be a bit undecided in terms of whether we can sell across state lines, with the current Administration where things like CBD might be deemed illegal at some point, there's just a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of risk,” he said.
Despite those risks, Neal Spears from Pikeville is willing to bet on it.
“This is about helping people,” he said. “This is about making people better and making this region better.”
This story came to us from Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project. Rachel’s on a team of five reporters exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us. Follow their trip across America at xthedivide.org.