Finding the real value of hemp in Kentucky

After a recent boost in funding, the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the University of Louisville is delving into the science and economics of commercializing industrial hemp.

Article by Grace Schneider

It’s a new line of work for the center, located inside the Speed School’s Ernst Hall, but it matches well with its existing examination of biofuels, catalysts and other chemical applications, said Henry “Hank” Conn, who with his wife has committed millions of dollars to fund the center and recently provided $160,000 to kick start hemp research.

Additional underwriting will come from an endowment established more than 30 years ago by the late Ray Schnur Sr., a member of the first Speed graduating class in 1928 who operated two companies in Louisville. He made an initial endowment gift of $100,000 — now more than $350,000 — to fund technology purchases for Speed’s electrical engineering department.

But Schnur’s son Ray Jr. and his family asked that the annual proceeds be directed now to Conn’s hemp effort, a move that will take effect July 1 with start of the next fiscal year.

“Hemp is the coming thing,” said the younger Schnur, who is 81 and the stepfather of David Barhorst, a Louisville developer and founder of Kentucky Hemp Ventures. Creating jobs from hemp will “help coal miners and tobacco farmers around the state,” Schnur said.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture launched a pilot program under authority of the 2014 federal farm bill, which allows states that enact laws to permit hemp growing and research. It’s given rise to several businesses that are working with selected farmers approved by the state to create foods and products from hemp fibers and oils. University of Kentucky agronomists have focused on aspects of growing and processing the crop.

At Conn, researchers are looking at the potential after the harvest — for pelletizing hemp for biofuel, creating catalysts for various chemical applications and using cellulose as a fuel source, said Andrew Marsh, the center’s assistant director.

“This whole thing just took off,” Marsh said, after the center planted a test plot of hemp in August. Some Speed students did a literature search of hemp research, and Schnur stepped up, offering to redirect the endowment at Conn.

To steer their work, center officials convened a forum in early December with more than three dozen growers, processors and business people. Those who gathered in a conference center encouraged Conn researchers to conduct a detailed economic analysis — looking at large-scale growing and products that can deliver the best bang for the buck.

The hemp program in Kentucky is in its infancy, having just 2,350 acres grown last year and 922 acres in 2015, according to the KDA.

Hank Conn said that the companies in chemical production and fertilizers have expressed interest in creating partnerships, depending on the results of the research. That’s exciting, but the key is making sure there’s solid science underpinning the economic modeling, Conn, who lives in suburban Atlanta, said last week. “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at 502-582-4082 or gschneider@courier-journal.com. 

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