How Kentucky Farmers Are Re-Growing the Hemp Industry from the Soil Up


The recent midterm election season saw another slew of cannabis law reform measures. Michigan was the first mid-west state to legalize marijuana allowing adults over the age of 21 to possess, grow, and consume small amounts legally. States like Ohio decriminalized cannabis possession, and Utah and Missouri legalized cannabis for medical uses.

The national attitude toward marijuana and cannabis-derived products is shifting in a huge way. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of Americans want marijuana to be legal.  In fact, following the 2013 legalization of recreational use in Colorado and Washington, its national approval has grown exponentially.

Beyond the medicinal and recreational uses of marijuana, many in this country have forgotten about the industrial uses of the cannabis plant that once was grown as an American agricultural staple. Hemp was used as rope and clothing fiber, the pulp was used to make paper products, and it was even used as a food product. However, following the alcohol prohibition repeal in the 1930s, conservative lawmakers needed a new chemical to demonize, so they turned to cannabis as a whole.

As a consequence of the national laws which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the hemp cultivation industry in America dissolved, leaving huge holes of profit in the agricultural industry. However, over the decades since cannabis criminalization, groups of activist farmers have been leading the charge to make hemp, and cannabis by-products like CBD oil, commercially viable again. Even with the progress that has been made on the cannabis legalization fronts, CBD and hemp are still considered high risk industries, requiring a special high risk CBD oil merchant account to accept credit card payments.   

Since the early 90’s Kentucky farmer, activist, and entrepreneur Joe Hickey of Atalo Holdings and Atalo Hemp Products, along with fellow activists Andy Graves and David Spalding have been taking steps to make hemp and cannabis products like CBD legal for cultivation. CBD and hemp purveyors these days are met with challenges in selling their goods from the government and payment processors alike. We asked Hickey questions about the benefits of Atalo Hemp Products, the history of hemp cultivation in Kentucky, and how he has empowered and educated Kentucky farmers through his expansive Growers’ Group program.

Atalo partners Andy Graves, Joe Hickey, and David Spalding

EDN: Can you tell us a little about the products you sell at Atalo Holdings? What are the main benefits that people can get from your products?

Joe Hickey: We’re a vertically integrated company and we take our product from seed to shelf, for wholesale, white label and retail customers. Hemp is a versatile plant in that it can be used for food, fiber, fuel, and medicine.  Atalo is working in all these areas, but the focus now is hemp-derived CBD, so most of our efforts are to create an agronomic model and certified seed to ensure quality and consistency. As you have noticed, the interest in CBD is exploding and we want to ensure a consistent, farm-fresh, high-quality product grown by our farmers, from fence row to fence row.  We want that quality and consistency to be in every bottle as well.

CBD is a relatively new natural supplement and customers are using it for everything from inflammation and pain, to anxiety, and even certain tremor disorders. In fact, you can find numerous abstracts at the National Institutes of Health about the benefits of CBD in these areas and more, and the World Health Organization has just released a very positive report about the benefits of hemp. We deliver a “full spectrum” farm fresh product, meaning the customer receives all the terpenes and phytocannabinoids available in the plant for the full “entourage effect.”  And since CBD is a new product and this is essentially a new industry, we’re very careful to test everything to guarantee a clean, quality and consistent product in every bottle.

EDN: Tell us a little about the history of hemp cultivation in Kentucky.

JH: Kentucky has a rich hemp history. Henry Clay imported Russian hemp seeds in the early 1800s and by the late 1800s, Kentucky and Ukraine were described as producing the best hemp in the world. By 1910, Kentucky was widely referred to as “the hemp capital of the world” and hemp was a mainstay of most farms. One of Atalo’s founders’ family has been farming hemp on their Clark County, Kentucky farm for now 7 generations, with the exception of that little 75-year hiatus [Cannabis Prohibition]. Kentucky was a focal point when prohibition beginning shutting down the US hemp industry in 1937. Federal Marshals confiscated thousands of pounds of Kentucky hemp seed from the Graves family in the 1940s for the war effort.

Ironically, all this was happening just when Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and other scientists and industrialists were declaring hemp to be a “miracle crop” and “the next billion dollar crop.”  Now here we are coming out of prohibition and jumpstarting AN old industry in a new way.

EDN: Tell us about your involvement in hemp advocacy in the 90’s. How have laws and regulations relaxed since you’ve been involved?

Andy Graves, David Spalding and I began advocating for hemp as a replacement for tobacco back in 1992. In 1994, we re-instated the Kentucky Hemp Grower’s Cooperative that was originally incorporated in 1942 to redistribute the Graves’ confiscated hemp. Since the anti-marijuana PR campaign, that was carried out in the 1930s to demonize hemp, had worked so well that people were literally afraid of the word hemp. But we were able to talk Governor Brereton Jones into starting the first hemp commission. Then we began talking to literally anyone who would listen [to us] at the agriculture colleges, farmers, elected officials, lobbyists, and school children. We spoke to and were able to convince four former governors together to advocate for legislation to revive Kentucky’s hemp industry.  

At the same time, we collected wild growing Kentucky help seed and took it to Canada to try to replicate that wonderful cultivar. While there, I partnered with Canadian farmer Jean Laprise, Anita Roddick from the Body Shop, and Woody Harrelson to start Kenex, LTD, Canada’s first vertically integrated hemp growing and manufacturing facility.

Woody and I worked together to bring national attention to the hemp issue by getting him arrested for cultivation of marijuana, regardless of the fact that he was actually planting certified hemp seeds. At issue was whether hemp should be classified as marijuana and Woody was facing up to a year in jail if things didn’t go well. In 2000 Woody was found innocent and we passed Kentucky’s hemp research legislation.

In 2014, we were closely involved with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to plant the first legal hemp crop in over 75 years. Over the last few years, with the move toward state pilot programs and with the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, we could finally be opening the doors for a much needed new rotational crop for American farmers.

EDN: What has been the biggest challenge in selling and marketing your products online?

JH: Today, it’s like the wild west in the marketplace, so I’d say consumer education is the biggest challenge.  Early on the products being marketed were very inconsistent and labeling was unclear. To address those issues, the Hemp Roundtable is instituting new guidelines that will clear up and standardize the industry. Of course, our value point is that we offer farm-fresh consistent quality every time.  We have a sophisticated internal lab and we also use third-party laboratories to ensure quality and consistency.

Then, of course, the Controlled Substance Act’s designation of hemp has made it very difficult to advertise online and has made banking, access to credit card merchants and crop insurance complicated or even non-existent.

EDN: Atalo Holdings founded a Growers’ Group in 2014 to educate farmers about hemp. How has that impacted the agriculture community in Kentucky?

Our Growers’ Group has been the heart and soul of the company. We started with just a couple of farmers with test tracts on 5 acres and now the Growers’ Group has grown to over 70 farmers across Kentucky and in 4 other states. These folks are the pioneers, taking a risk with everything from the agronomics to the pathways to market in order to be ahead of the game when hemp becomes a legal commodity. It has been difficult but we all feel it will pay off.

EDN: Do you think laws and regulations will relax nationally soon? What do you predict about the growth of the industry in the next 5 or 10 years?

I do believe the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will pass and hemp will become a legal commodity.  Then we’ll see a rise in research and development of all the attributes of the plant. CBD, as the focus today, will be further scrutinized as it hits retail shelves. All in all – the hemp industry is poised for excellent growth and we hope our research and development years will begin to pay off.

Learn more about Atalo Holdings and Atalo Hemp Products.