What Role Can Hemp Play in Kentucky's Future Ag Economy?
It’s a cool, overcast afternoon at Gaining Grounds Farm, about 60 miles south of Lexington. About 90 people, many of them veterans, farmers, or a combination thereof, are seated under a makeshift tent, taking refuge from a light rain that’s drizzling Gaining Ground's undulating 425 acres.
“The important thing is that this is an industry that has to be built from the ground up," says Michael Lewis, an Army vet turned agrarian advocate.
"There is no infrastructure. Guess what that takes? Jobs.”
As a member of the veteran farming collective called Growing Warriors, he’s in favor of removing barriers that block the planting of hemp, which the federal government still views as a schedule I controlled substance—even though you can’t get high from smoking the crop.
After a brief legal battle that made national headlines, nearly 300 pounds of imported Italian hemp seeds were finally released to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture this month after they were seized by federal customs agents.
Now that the seeds have made their way to pilot projects across the state, larger questions remain about the impact hemp will have on Kentucky's economy.
'Do You Have Good News?'
Standing at the podium beneath the tent, Lewis addresses the faithful on the satire of military veterans fighting the federal government over their right to plant a seed. Then he receives the phone call he’s been waiting for.
“I’m gonna take this because who knows? Hello?" he says to laughter from the audience."Hi, I’m on the podium talking to a bunch of people. Do you have good news?"
The phone call was from an official from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, who informed Lewis that the department will apply for hemp permits for research universities to cultivate, and that individual growers like himself must petition the federal court for a hemp planting permit.
“Outstanding," Lewis replies. "I’ll let everybody know …. Alright, so, that was good news. It’s not the best news, we won’t be planting hemp today but it looks like we’ll planting hemp Monday.”
The audience cheers.
In the weeks since, hemp is now legal to plant in Kentucky because of an intense legal battle between Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and the federal government. Political observers note that Comer’s maneuvering on hemp is likely linked to his rumored 2015 gubernatorial bid. The narrative is obvious: David versus Goliath, wherein Comer fought the law and, for all intents and purposes, won.
But it wasn’t always this way. Kentucky’s history of hemp production stretches back centuries. In the 19th century, Lexington became the center for Kentucky’s hemp industry, with hemp fibers fetching high market yields, and Kentucky producing more than 90 percent of the nation’s hemp supply, according to "A New History of Kentucky" by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter.
With the end of the Civil War, farm production costs skyrocketed, and hemp took a hit. It enjoyed a brief revival during World War II, when the United States government subsidized the crop to offset Imperial Japanese control of Philippine jute fields, the book says.
The crop continued to wane until it was effectively killed in 1970 with the passage of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Signed into law by President Nixon, the act lumped hemp in with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana—which effectively outlawed the crop.
Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation permitting industrial hemp’s research and cultivation in the state, setting the stage for Comer’s fight with the feds.
But just as it’s too early to tell just how much Comer will benefit politically from his stand-off with the federal government, so too does the economic impact of hemp on Kentucky remain nebulous.
The Numbers on Hemp
“It’s going to be a piece of the puzzle for some producers, potentially," says Will Snell, an agriculture professor at the University of Kentucky.
"But at the present time I think the market will evolve slowly, and don’t necessarily think at this point in time, especially in the short run, it would be a significant number of producers.”
Snell is a co-author of an oft-cited 2013 study on hemp’s economic viability that effectively curbed the enthusiasm of hemp-boosters like Comer. Among its findings were that mere dozens of jobs will be created by the nascent industry in the short term, and that even under best-case scenarios, hemp will amount to less than 1 percent of Kentucky’s farm cash receipts—and at the expense of acreage dedicated to corn and soybeans, which are currently more profitable.
Experts conclude that if Kentucky hemp wants to compete on a global scale, it will have to contend with two of the world’s leading producers of hemp: China and Canada. China boasted the world’s largest hemp crop, at about 150,000 acres, in 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service. And Canada has had nearly two decades to develop its hemp industry.
Research of the crop will be essential to determine which strains and products are best suited for Kentucky growers, Snell says.
He says the multi-million dollar U.S. hemp market contains hundreds of products, including niche consumer goods such as clothing, jewelry, soaps and oils. If hemp processors locate to Kentucky, Snell says, then farmers will have an incentive to cultivate hemp fiber, which is more costly to transport than hemp oil, and can be used for items such as fiber paneling for automobiles and bedding for horses.
“Even though it seems like it’s been debated very intensely over the past couple of years, I think most people will move forward very slowly and see what evolves," Snell says. "And I think that’s the reason why infrastructure will come along very slowly, and as a result the industry will take time to mature.”
From the view at Gaining Ground Farm, Snell’s hypothesis seems correct. Michael Lewis and his brother, fellow veteran farmer Fred-Curtis Lewis, say that out of 425 acres, they’ll plant about two acres of hemp to supplement their larger operation, which is focused on growing vegetables and raising livestock.
Fred-Curtis Lewis says he’s most excited about cultivating hemp oil containing cannabidiol, a chemical native to cannabis that anecdotal evidence suggests can treat certain neurological disorders.
“ That could help alleviate a current impasse over the slow implementation of a new state law legalizing cannabidiol, or CBD, whose importation from other states is currently illegal under federal law, and whose manufacture is currently non-existent in the state," Fred-Curtis Lewis says.
The Brothers Lewis transplanted back to Kentucky by way of North Carolina to be closer to their parents, and that hemp provides yet another tool for farmers--particularly veteran farmers-- to earn a living when many of their kind suffer from high-unemployment nationwide. Fred-Curtis Lewis, dressed in pin-striped overalls and sporting a massive gray-flecked beard, says that farming in his family’s blood.
"Emma’s almost seven," he says of his daughter, who'd found a worm. "And she talks everyday about a farm. My whole family, I’ve got four kids, two 14-year-old boys, one’s my wife’s and one’s mine. And we have an 11-year-old and her … they got farming in their blood. We lived on a farm here in Kentucky for about a year, and ever since we left that’s all they talk about.”
Michael says that the lack of infrastructure for hemp isn’t a bad thing; in fact, he says, if lawmakers invest in the industry the same way they invest in coal or road-building, then the sky could be the limit.
“We fund bridges and crap all the time just to create some little jobs," he says. "So why can’t we build an industry that supports communities? I mean, that’s good. That’s the bright side, that’s what’s exciting about this, right? We have to do it all. That’s important. It’s gonna change a lot of people’s lives, especially in this town.”