With John Wiggins’ two sons interested in farming and seeing an opportunity to diversify from his tobacco and row crops, hemp looked like a sure bet to add onto their south Graves County operation.
“It fit our niche,” Wiggins said.
So last season they decided to grow 128 acres of hemp and joined up with processor GenCanna as a contract farmer.
While the Winchester, Kentucky-based company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy following liens placed on its Mayfield processing plant site by contractors and a fire at its main plant facility, Wiggins said he felt comfortable with them through the initial growing process and would stick with GenCanna in the future.
“Without a doubt,” he said.
Being a contract farmer with GenCanna, Wiggins has operated under a confidentiality agreement. The company, however, waived that in order for Wiggins to share his experience as a hemp grower.
He said when industrial hemp was cleared through the U.S. Farm Bill two years ago, numerous farming operations looked at hemp as an opportunity to expand their crops. Wiggins said he and his brother, Brad, and sons, Hunter and Heath, went to informational meetings to gain as much knowledge as they could.
“Not so much about the ag side of it, but the money side and who to go with,” John Wiggins said. “That was a big decision, as to what company you felt comfortable going with.”
He said the presence of politicians like Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. James Comer and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, along with GenCanna’s experience of growing hemp in central and eastern Kentucky, added to their comfort with the hemp company.
“Once it got closer and we were making our decision about who to go with, (GenCanna) had open houses where they would bring farmers up from the western district to the eastern district and just flat out told us any questions or concerns you have, ask them,” Wiggins said of communicating with other Kentucky hemp growers.
“They were honest with us. They said it wasn’t always good and it wasn’t always on time, but they always got paid,” he added. “It was a learning curve and it definitely was for us. But talking to the farmers in central and eastern district, they were still growing. All of them were on board and staying on board.”
Wiggins, who initially planned to write a letter to the editor to share his experience working with GenCanna, said he and other contract farmers were able to go through their west Kentucky grower rep Ron Conyea to talk to other grower reps and hemp farmers when they had other questions throughout the growing and harvesting process. One particular area of concern was the non-use of herbicides and pesticides.
GenCanna provided four different organic deterrents for insects that were sprayed once a week. Wiggins said they had some insects but none to the level of consuming their crops. And with grass and weeds, they and their H2A workers attacked those issues with hoes.
Wiggins said he felt they had done their homework in picking GenCanna. He said the Kentucky Department of Agriculture stressed farmers should know whom they were growing for and where they were getting their hemp plants, and also offered lists of approved and non-approved varieties.
“It boiled down to THC levels,” he said, noting if the levels were too high and the plants were considered marijuana rather than hemp that farmers would have to destroy their crops.
“As expensive as it is to grow hemp, that wasn’t an option we wanted to take,” Wiggins added. “With GenCanna, since they’d already been growing for a few years, they had been testing several different genetics, raising their own plants, and to be honest with you, up to a certain point they had more invested in my crop than I did because they furnished us the plants we grew.
“It wasn’t so much we questioned GenCanna as much as we questioned if we went with a different company, where were our plants coming from? I felt comfortable knowing they were controlling that and they weren’t going to give me that many plants and have that much money invested in my crop and give me something that I was going to have to destroy,” he said. “They had a lot tied up in my crop, as well.”
Following the harvest and with the Mayfield processing plant still not completed, Wiggins was still able to have his crops weighed, tested and baled at the U.S. 45 North site, then transported to Winchester for processing instead of being processed here.
“We still hauled here, dumped here. It was the same process they told us it would be,” he said. “It just wasn’t handled like they thought it might be, but that was on them.”
Even before word of financial issues came about in the fall and the eventual bankruptcy filing this year, Wiggins said GenCanna kept farmers in the loop.
“They would openly let us know they were having some cash flow problem. It’s like building a house; you think it’ll cost $100,000 and it costs you $120,000. That’s kind of the way they put it to us,” he said. “They still owe us some money, but up until they filed voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy, GenCanna was current and paid us every penny owed.”
Wiggins said that in communications with GenCanna officials, the company plans to continue business though it does not plan on growing hemp in 2020. Instead, they hope to return to hemp farming in 2021.
Wiggins said his operation has gone through their Kentucky State Police background checks and has its hemp growers’ license for this season. They can go with a different company for 2020, but may not grow on the same scale.
As for the future of the crop, he believes it will be a huge agricultural shot in the arm for regional growers.
“There are so many uses for it,” Wiggins said. Much of the focus was on the Food and Drug Administration classifying hemp as a food and not a drug. That process has taken longer than hoped, but he said companies like Coca-Cola and Hershey’s are ready to add CBD into their products.
“That’s why we felt comfortable with GenCanna because GenCanna is totally organic and when Coca-Cola or Mars or Hershey’s comes to us and says we want to put it in our drink or in our food, we haven’t sprayed any pesticides or herbicides and if they go back and test our product, it’s clean,” he said.
Since that hasn’t happened yet, there is a surplus of hemp across the industry.
“It’s affecting the whole industry; not just GenCanna,” he said.
For the time being, hemp’s business model may have to shift from floral products to textile products.
“We may have to change what type of plant we’re growing and what we’re growing it for, but I think hemp is going to be good for the state of Kentucky and for farmers, in general, everywhere,” Wiggins added