DRAPER — A personal connection prompted a Kentucky-based hemp operation to expand its business into Pulaski County.
Tami Maria O’Dell grew up in Pulaski County. She and husband Robert Huttick happened to be in town, renovating her parents’ home, in March when Virginia adopted the legislation allowing industrial hemp to be grown commercially in the state. O’Dell called the timing “fortuitous.”
In July, they set about planting some 190,000 plants on 50 acres of farmland owned by a friend in Draper. It’s a small part of their total acreage — Huttick said they’ve planted approximately 800 acres total, the rest of it in Kentucky — but the couple hopes to grow into an economic engine for Pulaski County.
“We look at this as a great opportunity to give back to the place where I grew up,” O’Dell said.
She jokes that the couple, who split their time between Pennsylvania, Kentucky and now Virginia, were unknowingly renovating her parents’ Pulaski County home for themselves.
Kentucky BioScience International was founded last fall. Huttick serves as CEO and O’Dell as president. Huttick had previously worked as a consultant in the hemp industry, but decided last year to branch out on his own. Huttick describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” Family ties also led the couple to launch their company in Kentucky, an early supporter of hemp farming.
Neither Huttick nor O’Dell has a background in agriculture, although her parents both grew up on farms. Their interest in hemp was spurred in part by Huttick’s experience with CBD oil, which he turned to for relief following a bad car wreck. They say he hasn’t taken an Advil since.
The interest in CBD spans generations, O’Dell said: Millennials want the oils for insomnia and anxiety, while baby boomers use it to soothe inflammation and arthritis. She said the varied uses speak to the versatility of the plant. Research on the effects of CBD is limited, but O’Dell and Huttick both say anecdotal testimonials are promising.
O’Dell said she believes a transition to hemp is natural in the tobacco belt. Much of the equipment KBSI uses to grow its hemp is borrowed from tobacco farming. Huttick said they used modified tobacco setters made in Italy to transfer the plants from the greenhouse to the field.
They started with seeds, planted in the greenhouses of more than a dozen shuttered nurseries throughout Pulaski County. The bulk of the plants were eventually moved to the field, but Huttick said 4,000 will remain in the greenhouses for the duration of the growing process.
The indoor grow will be hand cut and trimmed for smokeable flower to be sold in states where that is legal, Huttick said. When the hemp planted in the fields leaves KBSI’s possession, it will be dried and homogenized, Huttick said, comparing its appearance to dried oregano.
The crop will be harvested and baled here in Virginia, Huttick said, but dried and processed in Kentucky. But that may not always be the case. Huttick said he wants to establish a regional drying facility that could be used by numerous farmers. He’s begun talks about the effort with county officials.
Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said he was excited by the agricultural component of the hemp business, but capitalizing on the industrial component that comes with processing the plant would be “the gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Sweet said he couldn’t go into specifics about the county’s discussions with KBSI, but emphasized that officials are interested in locating a processing facility in Pulaski County, leading to investment in the community and the creation of new jobs.
“We think that this is an exciting opportunity for our farming community, for taxable investment, for generating what we would call enough critical mass to support the industrial components on the back end,” Sweet said.
The county administrator said he believes Pulaski County is well positioned to support the burgeoning hemp industry, given its soil, climate and interstate access. The proximity to a research university like Virginia Tech is another bonus.
Sweet said this is a community that wants to “continue to evolve their industry sectors and continue to diversify their economy.”
“Pulaski County is really one of the most ideal locations in Southwest Virginia if not the commonwealth to not only grow, but to process,” he said.