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Americans are good at a lot of things but one trait that seems to run through most of our history is the ability to turn a bad situation to our advantage through innovation and a willingness to look outside the box.
The weak economy and the deterioration of the tobacco market has opened the door for Kentucky farmers to once again start raising hemp as a lucrative cash crop.
According to John Dvorak, author of “America’s Harried Hemp History,” Kentucky first planted hemp near Danville in 1775. In 1790, hemp fiber was first advertised for sale in local newspapers. The hemp industry rapidly expanded and Kentucky became the industry center for the next 100 years. Most of Kentucky’s hemp was grown in the “bluegrass” region that includes Fayette, Woodford, Jessamine, Garrard, Clark, Bourbon, Boyle, Scott and Shelby counties.
Dvorek said in his book that by 1811, there were almost 60 ropewalks, or rope-making facilities in Kentucky, and by the late 1850s, more than one-third of the 400 bagging, bale rope and cordage factories in America were located in Kentucky.
In a 1998 study conducted by researchers from the University of Kentucky, if just one-fourth of Kentucky’s 90 agricultural counties went into industrial hemp business, approximately 17,348 jobs would be created and $396 million in worker earnings would be generated each year.
Given the state of Kentucky’s economy especially in rural areas, those numbers sound like a blessing.
The notion of legalizing hemp production is gaining support in Frankfort.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has reactivated the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission that had been dormant for over a decade.
Comer has come out publicly to support Senate Bill 50, which would “establish conditions and procedures for the licensing of industrial hemp growers.”
Many people are coming forward to support the measure including Mike Lewis, a U.S. military veteran and family farmer from Berea, who leads the Growing Warriors program for military veterans interested in agriculture.
At a recent meeting of the commission, Lewis said legalizing industrial hemp could greatly benefit vets who want to make a living on a Kentucky farm.
“All we are asking for is the freedom to make a living and support our families,” Lewis said. “Many veterans are interested in small-scale farming, and the possibilities for industrial hemp give us some hope for good jobs – the kind of jobs our veterans deserve.”
The main sticking points opponents of legalizing production of industrial hemp bring up are the plant’s closeness to marijuana and the illegal drug trade.
Some law-enforcement officers are concerned that legalizing hemp could be a gateway to legalizing marijuana.
Comer said producing industrial hemp would actually combat the illegal growing of marijuana.
“Everyone knows that industrial hemp is marijuana’s worst nightmare because it kills the toxicity in the marijuana plant,” Comer said. “So it is very troubling to me when I hear reports that marijuana growers and certain members of law enforcement are on the same side. The arguments from our opposition are shallow, misleading and downright wrong. I believe the best way to get people off drugs is to put them back to work.”
Supporting the legalization of industrial hemp is not supporting the legalization of marijuana.
The move could also bring many of non-agricultural jobs to places like Owen County as processing plants spring up to take advantage of the new market.
Given that family farms face crushing economic problems every day, legalizing industrial hemp production again could be the lifeline that many small farmers in our region have been desperately looking for since the decline of smoking and tobacco.
This is a chance for Kentucky to be on the front end of change instead of as Mark Twain said “20 years after it happens anywhere else.”