Mention hemp and it will likely evoke images of long-haired hippies in sandals banging drums and burning incense. But more likely than not, you will find today’s major players in the full-court press to legalize industrial hemp wearing suits and ties, not tie-dye T-shirts.
In fact, the coalition driving the hemp movement in Kentucky features prominent business leaders, farmers and political figures, including state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
Comer began pushing for legalization within a month of taking office in 2011. His efforts paid off when the Kentucky legislature passed SB50 last March. The law legalizes industrial hemp farming in the Bluegrass State, but the federal government must first lift its ban before farmers can begin planting the crop.
“I have long believed that industrial hemp had great potential as a profitable crop for Kentucky farmers. Hemp is used to produce paper, clothing, cosmetics, construction materials, automobile parts, foods, and thousands of other products. We know that hemp grows well in Kentucky and elsewhere in the U.S.,” Comer said. “Kentucky was the leading hemp-producing state in the mid-19th century, and we ramped production up to record levels for the war effort in the 1940s. We should be growing hemp, and making hemp products in Kentucky and the United States. I will do everything in my power to make hemp legalization a reality.”
In fact, a recent Department of Justice memo declaring it will not challenge marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado could pave the way for hemp production in Kentucky, although Attorney General Jack Conway disagrees with that assessment.
A February 1938 article in Popular Mechanics dubbed industrial hemp the “New Billion-Dollar Crop. “ After years of declining production, the magazine predicted a renaissance with the invention of a machine that removed the fiber-bearing cortex from the stalk, opening the door for low cost production of products ranging from rope to paper.
But hemp’s fate was sealed the year before with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. While industrial hemp has very little THC, the active ingredient found in its cousin, marijuana, hemp got tangled in the regulatory web, partly due to timber and paper interests that didn’t want the competition. It got a reprieve during WWII, when the government encouraged farmers to grow the crop in its “Hemp for Victory Campaign.” But the tax and accompanying regulatory maze discouraged post-war production. The Supreme Court overturned the act in 1969, but that didn’t end regulation. Industrial hemp now falls under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. It technically remains legal to grow industrial hemp, but farmers must obtain a permit from the DEA, a nearly impossible feat.
With the door open to once again produce industrial hemp in Kentucky, only D.C. stands in the way. Several members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation support legalizing the crop including Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. John Yarmuth.
Massie said industrial hemp could serve as a jobs program in the Commonwealth.
“Hemp is a versatile crop that can be found in food and body products, clothing, auto parts, building materials, and other goods. The Hemp Industries Association estimates that the total U.S. retail value of hemp products in 2011 was $425 million. In fact, hemp products are on the shelves at your local Whole Foods, Target, and Costco Stores,” he said. “Both parties agree that job creation is the highest priority for the 113th Congress. The commonsense Industrial Hemp Farming Act provides greater opportunities for the Commonwealth’s consumers, businesses and farmers.”
Joey Pendleton served 20 years in the Kentucky Senate. His father grew industrial hemp on their Christian County farm during the war years. Pendleton began advocating for hemp long before it became trendy.
“It was a lonesome ride for a long time.”
Pendleton points out that the U.S. imports hemp from both Canada and China. Toyota uses hemp panels in its Camry. In fact, more than half of Canada’s hemp crop flows into the U.S.
“There’s something wrong here, it’s crazy. Why are we the only industrialized country where you can’t grow it legally? Hell, we need to get in the 21st Century,” he said, adding that the crop could provide a boon to small farmers devastated by the demise of tobacco. With the agricultural infrastructure already in place, Kentucky could lead the way in industrial hemp production.
“This would have a tremendous impact on Kentucky farmers. It would give them another crop. You don’t have to grow 100 acres. You can grow 10 to 15, like they did tobacco,” he said. “Let’s get Kentucky in the forefront for once, instead of being 38th or 49th.”
Comer also emphasized the importance of getting out front.
“It is undeniable that hemp has enormous potential to generate revenue for farmers and create jobs at all levels, from the farm to the processor to the store shelf,” he said. “The key is for Kentucky to be first in line, which will put us in position to capture the processing along with production.”
Eugene Stratton Jr. is a manager at Caudill Seed Company. He agrees industrial hemp could fill a void left by tobacco’s departure.
“Kentucky needs all the cash crops it can get. One of the challenges in finding a replacement for tobacco has been finding a high value crop adapted to the climate and soil with a large enough market potential to use what Kentucky can produce. The wide range of uses for hemp fiber give hope for the potential of a large market,” he said. “But until hemp is legalized, there is no market. The bigger markets are twine, rope, cloth and paper. None of these will benefit Kentucky agriculture until hemp can be legally grown.”
Stratton said Kentucky can also serve as a national hub for seed development if Washington steps aside.
“Kentucky has a moderate climate in the middle of the country in what is commonly called the ‘transition zone.’ Varieties bred and adapted to the area most likely would be adapted to much of the country,” he said.
Experts count as many as 25,000 uses for industrial hemp, but Pendleton said the prospect of developing it as a biofuel excites him most. Processes exist to combine coal and hemp to create a cleaner burning fuel.
“If we burnt 20 percent industrial hemp with it, it’s amazing how much cleaner coal would be,” he said. “If you want to talk about being environmentally friendly – let’s get serious about it.”
Roger Ford runs Patriot BioEnergy, based in Pikeville. He speaks about hemp with a great deal of enthusiasm. Hemp grows in virtually any soil and can flourish along the mountainsides of eastern Kentucky. Its deep roots make it ideal for erosion control, something vital in the eastern Kentucky coal fields. It grows fast and produces a high yield per acre. And it doesn’t impact the food chain like corn-based ethanol.
“We’re looking for biomass we can produce at low cost with low maintenance, and industrial hemp fits that bill,” Ford said. “I think it would be a very good biofuel crop; that is the point.”
Ford said industrial hemp would benefit a region in desperate need of an economic boost and do it in an environmentally friendly way.
“Legalize it and develop protocols that give us the guidelines to produce this on post mining land,” he said. “It’s time to stop researching and start commercializing these things. We need to develop a protocol and after that we need to get to utilizing this crop, especially in Kentucky.”
Critics argue the market for hemp simply doesn’t exist. A University of Kentucky study found only a relatively small market for the crop. Comer said you can’t really evaluate the potential market at this point.
“It’s unfair for some people to write off hemp when we haven’t been able to grow it legally in the U.S. for 75 years,” he said. “In fact, a hemp market already exists in the U.S. Retail sales of hemp-based products in this country is estimated to be as much as $300 million per year or maybe more. That’s $300 million that’s leaving the country because hemp production is banned in the U.S. We also know that an estimated 55,700 metric tons of industrial hemp are produced worldwide each year. Farmers wouldn’t grow all that hemp if they couldn’t sell it.”
Pendleton was a little blunter.
“This is strictly nonsense – that there’s no market.”
Comer says he finds strong support for industrial hemp production, from the farms of western Kentucky to coalfields in the east. He continues to press Washington to lift the virtual ban on industrial hemp and hopes the time will come when Kentucky can lead the nation.
“I traveled to all 120 Kentucky counties in 2012, and I had a lot of farmers express interest in hemp. Many business leaders and local officials — including local law enforcement authorities — also were supportive of hemp. I think the level of support in the ag community, as well as the business community is indicated by the fact that we were able to pass Senate Bill 50 with strong bipartisan support,” he said. “Thousands of Kentuckians are looking for good jobs, and Kentucky farmers want to diversify their operations and replace lost tobacco income. People understand that hemp has the potential to become an important addition to Kentucky’s economy, especially in our rural communities.”