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Hemp Hustlers

By Coleman Larkin |

I thought it would be more of a hush-hush kind of situation. I thought I'd be getting frisked and putting on a hazmat suit and coughing up a lot of identification for some square jaw in mirrored aviator shades.


The four-and-a-half acres of hemp I was going to check out is, after all, the first crop of its kind around here for a good long while and still kind of sort of a little bit illegal in the U.S.


But there wasn't any security to be had. Just your standard Kentucky backroad tube gate, already swung open by a couple guys fixing to do a little fishing. They said it was unlocked when they got there.

Should we lock it behind us? Eh. It's just plants.




East Kentucky agrohustlers

I'm with Todd Howard and Nathan Hall, a couple of young East Kentucky agrohustlers. Nathan is like a neo Johnny Appleseed or something. During his time as a reforestation coordinator at Green Forests Work he helped to fill strip-mined land with thousands of native trees. He plays the drums. He thinks in tree time. He's on summer break from Yale where he's getting his MBA so he can come back to the mountains and kick all the evildoers in the balls.


And Todd is a farmer. By choice. Which is what makes him so dangerous. His parents were in the coal and natural gas business, so he calls himself a Natural Resources Baby. He was raised like most of his neighbors, he says, "Eatin' that coal and drinkin' that gas." He spent 10 years working in the industry himself before making the decision to devote his life to farming. Now he's the man. If his hands aren't in the soil he's working with farmers markets and CSAs to make sure that his way of doing things, the right way, becomes the norm and not the exception.


We're all in Todd's truck navigating the dirt roads and barely roads that snake around what used to be the heart of a Pike County mountain and is now a coal-less plateau, much of it privately owned by Circuit Judge Steve Combs. The cattle he raises roam pretty much where they please up here.



Sometimes a small plane will sail overhead on its way into or out of the regional airport, probably carrying some Indian, Chinese or Australian coal speculators. Or maybe it's attorney Gary C. Johnson reclined in a leather captain's chair, a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones hugging his ears as he drifts to sleep to the sounds of a self-help audiobook called Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.


Anyway, Judge Combs is crucial. He's generously donated the use of his land and his equipment for this weird little project. He's got kind of a Ted Turner aura about him. That is, he's carved out a nice spot for himself on this planet and it's afforded him a certain level of invincibility. If you're from around here or you follow the news you know he's not one to keep his opinions to himself. Wander onto his property without his consent and you're likely to get the cussing of your life. He'll tell you and everybody you love to crawl up your ass and die. You can believe that. But when you want to grow 4.5 acres of marijuana's closest cousin in the middle of the Bible Belt he's exactly the kind of guy you need in your corner.


Todd's 9-year-old son, Luke, is in the bed of the truck under a red dolly. The sky cracks open for one of those brief midday storms where the sun stays out and he gets real wet real fast. He loves every second of it in a way that's probably unique to farmers' sons, and he sticks his head into the truck cab to tell us the obvious.


Todd says, "That's weird. It ain't raining in here."


Oddly, he's sick of the stuff. This has been The Year of Too Much Rain in East Kentucky. Never mind the overgrown, fruitless tomato plants strangling in their cages. Peoples' homes are literally floating away. And it's been hot, too. Too hot. Too hot and too wet. Not good for growing the things we like to eat. It'll be interesting to see how the hemp is handling it.


And that's kind of the point of this whole endeavor. A simple test. Just see what it does. Will hemp grow on abandoned mine land? How much help does it need? What's the best way to maximize yield without damaging the landscape? This is a baby step to see if it's even worth pursuing.





the first acre plot


"There she is," Todd says.


A thick and prickly blanket of bright green covers the earth and we disappear into it up to our waists.


For this project, Nathan came up with four different treatments to play around with. They planted some of the hemp on land that was mined and reclaimed about 25 years ago. Some on land that was mined as recently as five years ago. Some of it was treated with organic fertilizers and some of it with synthetics.


They say seeding on stripped land is the biggest challenge. They only tried one approach this time, a seed drill, which drops seeds into furrows and then compacts the soil around it. That's how the Canadians, Europeans and Chinese do it, but they're working on soil that's loose, flat and even. Strip-mined land is the polar opposite. It's tightly compacted, it's full of rocks and there's no topsoil to be had.


It's not really soil at all, actually. It's too young. Like a wine or a bourbon, it hasn't developed any complexity. Right now it's basically just a lot of rocks of various sizes. Some of them the size of bowling balls. A lot more of them the size of pinheads. But all of them rocks. It needs more things to die on top of it to get better. And, in order for that to happen, it needs to give life to more things. Tricky business.


"My hope now," says Todd, "is that 50 years from now there's 50 farmers in Appalachia doing something similar and creating real value instead of a bunch of outsiders coming in here to take advantage of this. That's what's important to me. There's plenty of us out there that want to work at this. Whether or not we get the opportunity to is the issue."


Ask Todd how traditional farming equipment weathers this unforgiving terrain and he'll hit you with some Appalachian English so you know it's the truth. "It got waylaid," he says.


That means it got fucked up.


In the future the guys say they'll try broadcasting, hydroseeding or even trying to develop some specialized equipment better suited for stripped land.


For this go-around, however, it was just the seed drill. It might've gotten destroyed in the process, but it seems to have done the trick. All around us are the familiar star-shaped leaves and there's a faint but noticeable pot smell.


Nathan is more scientific with his observations. He takes pictures to compare later. He postulates. Todd just kind of breathes it all in. He walks with his hands out and his fingers splayed and lets the leaves run between them. You can tell that both of them have a real reverence for the way things grow.





future farmers

Kentucky is entering its second year of industrial hemp pilot projects, but this is the first in Eastern Kentucky and the most interesting in that it has the potential to address so many of the problems affecting the area. Aside from being a replacement crop for tobacco growers, hemp could provide an array of desirable employment opportunities. Diversifying operations to include things like berries and livestock would ensure year-round work on land that's currently nothing but an eyesore.


With that kind of potential some big players are getting involved. For this project, The University of Pikeville hooked up with Lexington's Freedom Seed and Feed to form the Institute for Regenerative Design and Innovation. The idea is that, through student-based research, the IRDI will promote the development of industrial hemp in central Appalachia.


It's still in its infancy, but the Freedom-UPIKE connection has been invaluable.


"Freedom Seed & Feed provided the seed," Nathan says, "which is the hardest thing to come by. There's a lot of legal hoops to jump through to get possession of seed. It's also not cheap, especially to get it shipped from Europe. They also provided a $1000 check to get us started."


The University's involvement also made getting the necessary permits much easier.


Beyond that loose affiliation, the guys are pretty much just doing what they do. The actual growing and production of hemp is a very mature practice without a lot of unanswered questions. It's been going on for thousands of years. Around 1900, Kentucky was producing half of the hemp in America. It was our largest cash crop until 1915.

"Dad," Luke asks, "when it's time can I chop the hemp down with my machete?"

Now it's more about developing the market for hemp here at home and it's myriad uses in things like food, paper, building materials and beauty products.


But there was still that question of whether or not it would grow on abandoned strip mines. Nathan thinks he and Todd have the answer.


"I think it has definitely shown that it will."


"My hope now," says Todd, "is that 50 years from now there's 50 farmers in Appalachia doing something similar and creating real value instead of a bunch of outsiders coming in here to take advantage of this. That's what's important to me. There's plenty of us out there that want to work at this. Whether or not we get the opportunity to is the issue."


On the way back we catch sight of a rainbow. Not even a rainbow really. Just the beginnings of one. A vertical swath of colors starting its long arc. The day is over. And steam is rising from the marred earth like a demon finally exorcised.


"Dad," Luke asks, "when it's time can I chop the hemp down with my machete?"


"You absolutely can, son."


Photos and Video By Coleman Larkin

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