Atalo Holding Partners

SEEDS of INNOVATION: Atalo’s 25-Year Story in a Hemp Shell

92-year old Kentucky farmer Jacob Graves applauded the filing of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 as an opportunity for rural economic development, and the positive outcome of 25 years of advocacy.  “The relationships we’ve built over the years and the research and development company we started in 2014 are paying off now,” said his son Andrew Graves, a seventh-generation hemp farmer. “We’re ready to scale up.”


Jake Graves was a 6th generation Kentucky hemp farmer when the curtain of prohibition fell in 1937 with the Marijuana Tax Act. “Hemp was a mainstay of our farms rotation throughout the 1800s, when Kentucky was known as the Hemp Capital of the World,” said Graves. “It was grown primarily for fiber in those days.  The value of hemp for food and medicine was largely unknown.”

In 1993, after a 45-year hiatus in hemp cultivation, Graves, his son Andy and hemp advocates Joe Hickey and David Spalding began lobbying for hemp as a replacement for tobacco in Kentucky.  After all, the Burley Capital was once known as The Hemp Capital of the World.  As Hickey recalled, “We knew change was going to be a struggle, so we approached it from multiple angles, including education, research, politics and even public relations events.” The difficulty they faced was clearly stated when a 2002 Time Magazine article about the group asked, “If Hemp Isn’t a Drug, Why is the DEA Treating it Like Heroin?”

1996 was a seminal year for the group.  After an impassioned presentation by Andy Graves at the American Farm Bureau national conference in Reno, Nevada, delegates endorsed a resolution to “encourage research into the viability and economic potential of industrial hemp production in the United States, …including planting test plots …and using modern agricultural techniques.”   And on the political front, Joe Hickey had convinced four former Kentucky governors, Louie Nunn, Julian Carroll, Edward Breathitt and Brereton Jones, to join the call for hemp as a replacement for tobacco. It was time to up the ante.


By the late 1990’s it was time to up the investment and take the fight for hemp to the next level.  Joe Hickey had met Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop and a pioneer in the use of hemp as a health and beauty product.  Soon thereafter, Roddick, accompanied by Hickey and hemp activist Woody Harrelson, met with Jean Laprise, one of Canada’s largest Brussels Sprouts growers, and together they started Kenex, LTD., in Chatham, Ontario as a proof of concept.  “We met Jean Laprise through Joe Strobel, who wanted to build a hemp facility in Canada,” Hickey said.  “The group raised money and we opened Kenex in 1997 with the idea of growing and processing hemp in the same location and using the crop for everything from oils for Anita, to fiber for particle board, plastics, hempcrete, and matting for automobile panels.  It’s interesting to remember that CBD and the protein profile of hemp were not well known at that time.”

Graves, Spalding and Hickey harvested 1,000 seeds from feral plants in the heart of Kentucky’s hemp country and surreptitiously took them into Canada where they began the effort to revive the Kentucky germplasm. According to Hickey, “Kenex began growing and harvesting the Kentucky hemp seed for processing as grain, oil, and fiber.  Anita was interested in oil for health and beauty products and was a huge advocate for that use.”

The company also invested in decortication and a fiber matting line to fill orders from US-based Indiana Bio Composites for door panel insulation and carpet underlayment.  “We had plenty of orders for the matting, but the DEA kept stopping shipments at the border and holding them arbitrarily, for days and weeks at a time.  The DEA stepped in to stop us at every opportunity, including sequestering birdseed orders.  Eventually they succeeded in killing the business, but not our enthusiasm. The word was out!” Hickey said.

At the same time, Woody Harrelson was investing his freedom in the hemp movement. In a collaboration with Joe Hickey, Andy Graves and Dave Spalding, Woody challenged Kentucky law by planting hemp seeds in Lee County to provoke his arrest for “cultivation of marijuana.”  Former Kentucky governor Louie Nunn, notorious for his anti-drug sentiments, served on his defense team.  In his closing statement, governor Nunn pulled a hemp bar from his hemp suit, took a bite and told the jury, “I’ve got it on me and I’ve got it in me. So, if you’re going to convict Mr. Harrelson, then you’ll have to convict me too!”

Harrelson was acquitted of cultivating marijuana and declared “Independence Day for Kentucky farmers.”  At the acquittal, Governor Nunn stated, “Today justice was served.  Now we start promoting the growth of hemp so we can have a great economic future in Kentucky. We’re losing tobacco, the farmers are suffering and this could be an alternative crop.  Beyond that, I’m looking to 20 years from now when somebody will be here processing hemp, where they’ll be making clothes, making shoes, where they’ll be making panels for automobiles like they are doing in Canada.”  The arrest and trial made national headlines and focused a generation of young Americans on the hemp revolution.


It all starts with the seed.  Atalo’s partners are fond of saying, “Like a powerful Kentucky race horse, pedigree matters.”  The years of research and development with international partners are evident in Atalo’s proprietary, certified, internationally pedigreed seed. Over the past four years, Atalo’s Growers’ Group has been blending innovation and technology with agriculture and the environment by testing this and other cultivars to determine optimum planting, harvesting and processing systems based on a consistent beginning – the seed.

“We’ve spent significant time working through the agronomics of hemp, from seed selection to agricultural systems, all the way through processing. Our growers have been taking the risk with us in the effort to create a consistent, scalable agronomic model with predictable economic results.  We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” said David Spalding, Contracting Officer and original Atalo partner.

“In 2014, we picked the name Atalo from Greek, referring to strength, vitality, youth and new beginnings,” said Joe Hickey.  “For us, the time had arrived to bring our 25 years of research and development into commercialization.  It’s a new age of innovation for an ancient plant.”

Atalo was launched with the intention of bringing hemp back to the American farmer, capitalizing on all of its attributes for food, fiber and wellness. Atalo’s team includes researchers, seed scientists, agronomists and expert farmers, including some very innovative young farmers, all of whom are rapidly expanding the knowledge base for this powerful plant.  CEO William Hilliard looks to the future. “We are focused, in part, on hemp’s protein profile, perhaps the best plant protein profile there is and the potential for Cannabidiol is mind boggling,” said Hilliard. Before Prohibition, in the 1930’s, Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver described hemp at a “Miracle Crop.” Today, with the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System in the human brain and body, hemp-derived Cannabidiol (CBD) is emerging as an important functional food, a nutraceutical, a medicine.  Evidence published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that CBD has a positive effect on pain sensation, mood and memory and has been seen as effective with inflammatory diseases, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s Disease and Epilepsy.

“The market for CBD is growing exponentially,” said Hilliard.  “There is tremendous interest in our Farm Fresh, Full Spectrum CBD from Kentucky Grown Hemp. Atalo’s emphasis on consistency through superior agronomics, proprietary seed and manufacturing quality control yields a repeatable CBD product, which is rare in this emerging industry,” he said.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Pilot Program has allotted 2,700 acres for Atalo in 2018, making it one of the largest permitted growers in the US.  According to Atalo records, there are currently 60 farmers with more than 150 employees farming Atalo’s acres across Kentucky and the Hemp Research Campus is expanding to accommodate new processing – all pointing to increased rural economic development.

“The hemp market is expected to surpass $2 billion by 2022 for CBD alone,” said Andrew Graves, “We’re hearing about excellent results from CBD and the grain crop is coming along nicely. As I said before, we’re ready to scale up and Senator McConnell’s filing of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 could become a huge opportunity for the new American farmer.  Kentucky was once called The Hemp Capital of the World.  I’d say we’re back.”

Published by Atalo Holdings

for From the Ground Up

April 2018