(Photo from Creative Commons)
By Tim Thornberry
The idea of growing industrial hemp once again in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention thanks mostly to a growing number of advocates.
In fact, bills have now been filed in both the state House and Senate that would allow farmers in Kentucky to raise the crop once again in the event federal restrictions are lifted. And Monday, the newly reinstated Kentucky Hemp Commission voted to support the Senate version and commissioned an economic impact study to be performed by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture with the hopes that such a study could have an impact on the discussion at the federal level to legalize industrial hemp. (See KyForward story here.)
Although bipartisan signs of support have been seen across the state, in a short session that has tax reform and pension reform on its list of things to do makes advancing any other piece of legislation that is remotely controversial may be a stretch. Still, Comer said realistically he thinks there is a 50-50 chance the bill will pass this year.
“We’ve got a good bill and I’m hopeful it goes through this session. Legislators use the fact that it’s a short session as an excuse not to do their jobs. It takes five days to pass a bill so they have six weeks,” he said. “If farmers got up early in the morning and said ‘well it might rain this afternoon, I don’t think I will start the tractor,’ that’s not how it goes. They work as long as it takes to get the job done and that is what our legislators are going to have to do.”
Some of Kentucky’s U.S. Congressional delegation, including Rep. John Yarmuth, newly elected Rep. Andy Barr and Sen. Rand Paul have stepped up to voice their support. Paul, along with many state legislators, joined Comer last August at the Kentucky State Fair to announce support of the initiative.
Recently the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has added its support for the legislation, as well.
A statement on the organization’s website read, “The Kentucky Chamber supports exploring the commercialization of industrial hemp in Kentucky. Provided there is an adequate regulatory framework adopted to oversee the production and cultivation of industrial hemp, the Chamber supports legislation to position Kentucky as a leader in the production and commercialization of industrial hemp.”
Comer said that organization’s support demonstrates that the hemp issue is more than just an agriculture issue.
“We are elated that the Chamber of Commerce came out in support of it so I think that gives a lot of credibility from a group not affiliated with agriculture but its primary purpose is economic development. It shows that bill has economic development potentials and goes way outside the realm of agriculture,” he said.
Last November, the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission met for the first time in a decade to open discussions on the matter. One member of that commission, Brian Furnish, a tobacco farmer, former general manager of the Burley Tobacco Cooperative and current president of his own company, the International Tobacco Trading Group said he knows the plant will grow well here and much of what is utilized to grow tobacco can be used with hemp.
“Hemp was king before tobacco was king as far as a crop and the thing I like about it is it can be grown on marginal land. You don’t have to take your best land and plant hemp. For a lot of farmers who have small acreage and grow tobacco, they need to keep that ground for tobacco. As far as equipment is concerned, you really don’t have to do a lot to modify equipment for harvest,” he said.
Furnish also said because there is a big demand in this country for hemp-created products coupled with the possibility that Kentucky could be one of the first states to raise it; that would be a very positive thing. He added that while it would not replace other major crops in the state, it would be a good addition.
“This is not going to be a replacement for tobacco or corn and soybeans but it’s a crop that is native to the area, it grows well here and it’s a plant that will help clean up the soil,” he said.
Studies have suggested that hemp has the ability to detoxify soil. It also is used for a number of products from auto dash boards to hand lotions.
Furnish noted that many businesses are willing to invest in the idea which means no need for government financial support.
“They grow hemp in 30-some countries and if they can do it there, why can’t we do it here,” he said.
Hemp remains illegal to grow because of its relationship with marijuana. The two plants belong to the same plant family but hemp contains nearly nonexistent levels of THC, the primary mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.
But law enforcement has been slow to come around to the idea. Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer has said that agency will not support the growing of hemp in the state because it is difficult to distinguish between the two plants.
Law enforcement is represented on the hemp commission. After its first meeting commission member Major Anthony Terry of the Kentucky State Police said in addition to identifying the legal plants verses the illegal ones, there is the issue of the added work and costs involved when plants had to be tested to determine what is hemp and what is not.
Furnish said he understands the concerns of the state police but there would be plenty of regulations involving growing a crop including having to get a permit to grow it and background checks on producers.
“I think it would be a win-win situation for Kentucky if we could be one of the first states and it could help farms as well as create jobs,” he said. “I just hope they give the bill a chance in the legislature and not hide behind the fear that it would increase marijuana production.”
David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a $50 million a year company that makes natural soap products and utilizes imported hemp seed oil, said the U.S. would have some catching up to do but legalizing it could mean big dollars for the economy.
“I would say it’s in the tens of millions of dollars in direct raw materials and the market is growing rapidly,” he said. “But it’s difficult to gage. The food market potential is huge, building and construction is huge and bio-composites are growing.”
Bronner is supportive enough of the initiative that he has put up $50,000 to aid the hemp commission in exploring the possibilities of growing industrial hemp.
He also pointed out that other states are looking at developing crops of their own and whoever is first will be in a better position to benefit from it.
Economically, hemp has the potential to be big business in the state, according to Comer. He said Paul is willing to pitch the idea of a waiver for a pilot project that could be conducted in this state should legislation pass to the Obama administration.
“If that were the case, with as many new products that are being made in other countries from industrial hemp, we could become the “silicon valley” of manufacturing industrial hemp products, and that would be huge for the state of Kentucky,” he said.
You might also be interested in reading these stories on KyForward:
Ag Commissioner James Comer ending first year in office as it began – full steam ahead
Hemp used to make hundreds of products yet restrictions make production prohibitive
The RP: It’s high time we legalize hemp, discussion, rally tonight with Ag. Com. Comer
Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission to meet for the first time in 10 years
Rand Paul PAC, David Bronner give $100,000 to Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission.
Comer says Christian County sheriff’s support a boost to Kentucky hemp legalization effort