By Megan M. Seckman
Think “hemp farmer” and I’m sure your mental image conjures up someone bearded and bohemian.
But Kentucky, it’s time you met your real local hemp farmer: Phyllis Haag Smith. She’s 67, a part-time elderly caregiver, women’s fitness coach, farmer’s market vendor, and a full-time grandmother. She loves heirloom tomatoes, Wendell Berry, Kentucky history, and, of course, farming. She and her husband have worked their Henry County land, Green’s Fork Farm, for decades, and they think they’ve finally found a crop that can pay the mortgage and secure their retirement: hemp.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has made the production of hemp legal under the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program. The program is experimental, highly regulated, and aims to gather research; therefore, the application process and background checks are heavily monitored by the state. Since Phyllis and her husband made the switch to hemp last year, her crop has been checked four times by the KDA.
|Choosing to grow hemp has enabled Phyllis to keep her
farm in operation while increasing profitability. Photos by Trina Whalin
Historically, the couple farmed cattle, tobacco, and produce (such as her prized heirloom tomatoes), but decided to try hemp because of the crop’s sustainability. They’ve struggled to keep their small farm afloat since the loss of Kentucky’s tobacco program, but hemp seems to be the panacea. It nourishes the soil, is resistant to most pests, is easy to grow, and yields an excellent profit. Phyllis was permitted by the state to grow two acres of certified organic hemp as long as they complied with the state’s stringent regulations: they cannot use any pesticides; they had to purchase the hemp clones from a KDA greenhouse; and they have to undergo testing of the crop to make sure the THC levels are less than .03 percent.
“People still consider hemp marijuana, and it’s not,” Phyllis explains. Although in the same family, marijuana contains high levels of THC, a psychotropic compound that causes a “high,” and low levels of CBD (cannabidiol), a medicinal, naturally occurring compound some claim benefits inflammatory and neurological processes.
“Hemp had a two-fold benefit for me. It was a way to help our farm survive, both financially and agriculturally. Preserving the soil is the number one goal on the farm, and hemp doesn’t rob the soil of nutrients. But this is also an ancient product that researchers are finding has a host of benefits.”
Phyllis’s philosophy has always been intertwined with healthcare. She ran the former clinic at Foxhollow Farm and is enthusiastic about integrative medicine, and she believes this product to be the best of both worlds on and off the farm.
At harvest time, Phyllis’s hemp is sold to a state-licensed processor, who extracts the hemp oil into tinctures, skin care products, and extracts. There are thousands of varieties of hemp that can be grown for the plant’s seed, oil, or textiles (such as rope). The plant is viable and versatile, and Phyllis hopes to see the state’s program be a success. She explained that several processors have migrated to the state from Colorado in anticipation of Kentucky’s budding hemp industry — a sign of hope for the future for Kentucky’s farms.
So what is your local hemp farmer reading, watching, and listening to when she’s not tending to her crops and grandchildren?
- Phyllis reads a variety of Kentucky authors and history and is a huge fan of Wendell Berry. Her most memorable read of the recent past was the novel Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a Kentucky native and scientist. The story features a Kentucky woman finding herself in the midst of an environmental event that throws off the migration patterns of monarch butterflies. This novel inspired Phyllis to plant 300 milkweed plants that she now sells in the Henry County farmer’s market in hopes of sustaining this beautiful species.
- Phyllis also thinks every coffee table ought to have a copy of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog. “The photography is fantastic. I could look at heirloom vegetables all day!”
- “I watch junk whenever I get a chance, which isn’t often, like MSNBC and sports.”
- Although she doesn’t watch much TV, Phyllis has also been bitten by the This is Us bug, which seems to span every demographic — even making its way to the farm.
- “If I’m going to listen to music, it has to be rock. The Rolling Stones are my favorite and always fun!”
- She listens to NPR regularly for music and news.