By Rebekah Alvey Lexington Herald-Leader
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Kathleen Butler is one of the more than 1,000 applicants approved to grow hemp in Kentucky. Her farm may be the first in the United States to supply Patagonia, a global outdoors company, with hemp fiber to make sustainable clothing.
Kathleen Butler traversed her Paris, Ky., farm on a recent sunny day, passionately pointing out livestock, ponds and other landmarks while sharing stories about raising chickens and hogs. Through hills of grass, a smell emerged before tall, green stalks become visible.
Wearing a Patagonia T-shirt, a Butler Farms cap and muddied boots, Butler showed off her newest farming venture, 35 acres of organic hemp.
Butler is just one of the more than 1,000 applicants approved to grow hemp in Kentucky. While CBD oil is the most well-known hemp product of late, Butler's hemp has a different purpose.
Her farm may be the first in the United States to supply Patagonia, a global outdoors company, with hemp fiber to make sustainable clothing, according to those involved with the deal.
"What an honor it is for us that they chose this small farmer in Kentucky to make this happen," Butler said.
The Butler Farms contract is being brokered through Sunstrand, which is focused on sustainable materials and headquartered in Louisville. Trey Riddle, CEO of Sunstrand, said the contract language is nearly finalized. He said he's confident one final piece can be resolved by next week.
Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles said Butler's nearly completed agreement appears to be the first major deal for apparel in Kentucky, and may be one of the most significant hemp fiber announcements since hemp was "brought back to life." The deal demonstrates the economic potential of the plant, Quarles said.
Patagonia Director of Material Development Sarah Hayes said legalized U.S. hemp widens options for fiber sourcing and the country's farmers get to regain lost knowledge about what varieties and planting parameters produce quality fiber.
"We look forward to being able to source US-grown hemp, and we are excited for the future of this durable and versatile crop," Hayes said.
Patagonia previously made its hemp clothing line exclusively with Chinese-produced hemp fibers.
Although she planted part of the hemp in May and plans to harvest in September, Butler said the clothes would not be available until 2021 because of how long it takes to process the fibers. As a first-year hemp farmer, there is a lot of pressure to make a good product., she said.
Butler is a veteran "city girl," and grew up in Ocala, Fla. She said she and her husband were always interested in where their food came from and eventually decided to grow it themselves.
In 2013, the Butler family moved to the farm where they began to raise chicken and hogs and eventually supply some local restaurants, such as Vinaigrette, in Lexington.
Then came organic hemp and Patagonia, which has a reputation for being socially and environmentally conscious.
Riddle said Sunstrand was in contact with Patagonia for years, but conversations about collaboration peaked this year.
Patagonia wanted to do something significant with U.S. organic hemp, and hoped to secure several acres for production, Riddle said. However, Sunstrand was not working with an organic hemp farm at the time.
Butler said her introduction to Sunstrand was completely random. She said she happened to be sitting by a representative at a state mandatory meeting for hemp farmers this year. Butler spoke about her farm and her intentions with it. The representative asked her to meet with the CEO.
After meeting the farm's owners, Riddle said he appreciated their attitude and story which eventually led to them being selected for the deal. "This is an exciting movement into an untapped market for hemp fiber," Riddle said.
Sunstrand provided the hemp seed to Butler Farms and was available to consult, Butler said. Sunstrand helped train Butler and offered to provide harvesting supplies.
The farm doesn't own a tractor; Butler has paid a nearby farmer to mow and disk the land for planting.
"Top five about being a farmer is the community of other farmers," Butler said. "Everybody pitches in and helps each other, no questions asked. "
Once finalized, Butler's Patagonia deal could spill over to other farms. Butler advised Patagonia about four other organic farms that could sign on to plant hemp next year. She said those farms could make Kentucky the leading provider for Patagonia.
"I'm more excited about the opportunity this is for our state than anything," Butler said. "Forget Butler Farms and what this is for us. ... I can't wait to see how this grows and how it will change our state."
Patagonia initially would commit to buying all the hemp from Butler Farms for a year, but Butler said if she produces a good product, she believes Patagonia will continue to work with Kentucky.
Already she said Patagonia has suggested they will take 20 acres of seed from her farm to start other hemp farms in the state. That could generate about 400 additional acres of hemp production, she said.
If Kentucky continues to grow for Patagonia, money would go back into the local economy by helping the farmers involved pay off any debts, expand their farms or start other organic hemp farms, Butler said.
Clothing grown from the earth Back when the crop was legal, Bourbon County was a leading producer of hemp in the state, Butler said. Within Kentucky soil, Butler said there are high amounts of limestone which are important in growing horses and hemp.
Similar to how limestone in soil strengthens a horses bones, the minerals make the soil richer and help hemp grow strong, she said.
Organic hemp, Butler explained, is different from conventional hemp in how it's grown. To cultivate organic hemp, no chemicals or weed repellent are involved and the land is relatively undisturbed. To plant her several acres, only sowing and disking the land was required.
Butler was attracted to hemp because it's sustainable and has little impact on the environment. Additionally, Butler said Patagonia appeared to be a good match because it would allow her to work with a major brand while maintaining her organic values.
In comparison to tobacco or other materials, which require a lot of chemicals and are harsh on the land, hemp grown for fiber and grain has a low impact on the earth. Additionally, using hemp fibers for clothing reduces the amount of plastic or synthetic fibers that end up in a landfill.
"Think about how much Americans change their wardrobe, and things that are made just with those synthetic materials," Butler said. "Using a hemp product, we're using a source that's actually derived from the earth, grown and made back into a product that can break down easily."
Unlike plants such as cotton, which only uses the flower for fibers, the entire hemp plant, fiber, grain and cannabinoid, can be used.
Through a pilot project, Butler said she is trying to see if all three forms of the plant can be sustainably harvested at once from 20 acres of her hemp field. She said growing cannabinoids, which make CBD oil, is more labor-intensive because it must be picked by hand, similar to tobacco. Additionally, she said there is a very specific time to harvest so the flower does not lose potency.
A hemp revolution The state has earned a national reputation for its hemp programs from the success of local farmers, said Quarles. Companies like Patagonia are looking to Kentucky because of the quality of hemp fiber.
In 2019, the agriculture department approved 1,035 applications to cultivate around 42,000 acres of industrial hemp. Additionally, 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space was approved for hemp cultivation.
Just 33 acres were approved and planted in 2014, the first growing year. Since then, the number of acres dedicated to hemp cultivation has grown exponentially.