A hemp processing plant in Jenkins may be more than just a pipe dream.
The head of a company planning the business said a date has been set to take possession of the former Ferus Corp. property at Jenkins, and could begin processing hemp by summer.
“We’re at the finish line,” said Neal Spears, director of operations of East Kentucky Extraction, a Pikeville company that plans to open the plant.
Spears, a Dorton native, said the company will lease the Ferus building on the Gateway Business Park in Jenkins. He said a price has been negotiated, and the only thing left to do is agree on who will inspect the building, which has stood empty since 2015, just four years after the company opened.
Because of the murky legality of hemp, it hadn’t been grown commercially in the United States for decades until recently.
Marijuana can come from either cannabis sativa or cannabis indica plant, but like tomatoes have different varieties, so does cannabis sativa. Varieties with high concentrations of THC are marijuana. Those with less than 0.3 percent THC are classified as hemp.
Marijuana has been illegal under federal law since the plant was first regulated under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. That law was superseded by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which created “schedules” of narcotics, and placed marijuana in the same category as heroin and other dangerous drugs with no medical benefit.
Recently, the belief that marijuana has no medical benefit has come into question, especially with research that shows promise for the use of CBD, another chemical found in both marijuana and in hemp, to control seizures.
States such as Kentucky have allowed limited growth of hemp for research into both medical and industrial uses. Federal laws on hemp have also eased, and hemp processor facilities are cropping up all over the state. The plant in Jenkins would be the first in eastern Kentucky.
“ We’ll be extracting hemp oil, and we’ll be keeping some greenhouses where we can clone plants and produce seeds,” he said.
He said at current prices, hemp with 3.5 percent CBD per pound brings about $35 per pound, and the first processing machine is being built at a cost of $1.4 million, and should be here by April. That machine, Spears said, will be able to process about 300 pounds per run, and can do 3 runs per day. He said the plant will employ between 10 and 12 people initially, but employment is expected to increase. It will take about 50 acres of hemp to run the plant for one year with one shift per day.
“I’d personally like to see us be open by spring or summer,” he said.
Spears said his company will be extracting oil from hemp, and won’t initially be doing anything with the fibers. That’s a different variety of hemp anyway, Spears said. He said because there’s not much flat land here, the ideal place for growing plants for oil is on the hillsides, which would require land to be cleared.
Spears said he doesn’t see that as a problem, since most studies show hemp cleaning more carbon from the air than trees do.
“You make a profit every year, and it grows back every year,” he said.
Fiber hemp doesn’t require nearly as much topsoil, he said, so there is potential to grow lots of it here.
“There’s probably a lot of strip mines where you grow fiber hemp,” he said.
Jenkins Mayor Todd Depriest said the company hasn’t asked for any kind of incentives to move to Jenkins, and if it works out will be a good thing for the city and for Letcher County.
“It’s good because it’s jobs to start off with, but the attention it might bring from people in the United State or Canada that are in the hemp business,” Depriest said.
He envisions manufacturers that might use hemp to produce everything from auto parts to textiles.
“They tell me that anything that can be made out of petroleum can be made out of hemp,” he said.