No hemp planted at hemp planting ceremony, but 'we got what we wanted'

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 16, 2014 

WILDIE — It was a case of history delayed, at least for a few days.

Dozens of people gathered Friday at a farm in Rockcastle County for the first legal planting of hemp seeds in Kentucky in decades, but the event didn't go as planned after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration held up a shipment of hemp seeds.

The farmers in Rockcastle County had a separate cache of industrial hemp seeds, imported from France by way of California, so they could have planted without the blocked shipment to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

However, they held off to avoid potential problems with the drug agency while Agriculture Commissioner James Comer sued the DEA and others to try to force the release of the seeds.

As lawyers wrangled in federal court in Louisville, people standing in the chilly wind in Rockcastle County talked about the benefits of hemp, munched on chocolate-covered hemp seeds and waited to see what would happen.

"It's kind of a frustrating afternoon," said Lauren Stansbury, spokeswoman for the national Vote Hemp organization, which helped arranged Friday's event. There were no kind words for the DEA.

"It's in law that we're allowed to do this, and the DEA is going above the law," said David Hadland with the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association.

Several people perceived a political motive in the DEA's actions, an effort to protect turf and funding, or maybe an effort to scare other states away from pursuing hemp projects.

The event had drawn plenty of media attention, as well a crew shooting video that will go into a pitch to develop the hemp project into a reality television series. "It is historic, which is why I was drawn to it," said Russell Muth, an executive producer from New York.

Kentucky lawmakers last year approved letting farmers grow hemp if the federal government ever allowed it. That happened this year, when Congress approved a farm bill authorizing research projects by universities and state agriculture departments to test hemp production in Kentucky and more than a dozen other states.

Comer announced several pilot projects in the state, including the one in Rockcastle County to be carried out by an organization called Growing Warriors, which aims to train military veterans as farmers.

The plan is to grow 10 acres of industrial hemp and have the fiber milled into fabric at a plant in North Carolina for use in clothing and U.S. flags, said Michael Lewis, head of Growing Warriors.

Lewis and others at the event went ahead with their scheduled speeches as they waited for word from federal court.

"This is a monumental moment in history," said Sonia Kendrick, a farmer who traveled from Iowa for the planting ceremony. "What you're doing in your state needs to be replicated in every state."

Patrick Goggin, an attorney for Vote Hemp, called Kentucky the new industrial-hemp capitol of the nation.

"It's Ground Zero, and we're gonna grow and move out from here," he said as the crowd applauded. "It is gonna be grown in every state, but it's gonna be grown first in Kentucky."

Martin Richards, head of the Community Farm Alliance, said rural Kentucky has lost tobacco production and apparel factories that were once a mainstay of the economy. Hemp can provide farm jobs and income and help build a new apparel industry, he said.

"It gives me really great hope for the future in Kentucky," he said.

Former state Sen. Joey Pendleton, a Democrat who farms in Christian County, recalled being the lone sponsor of industrial hemp bills in the legislature for a long time before momentum began to build for the issue.

"We hope that some judge today is going to recognize ... what's the right thing to do," he said.

Lewis was talking about building the state's hemp industry when he got a call on his cell phone.

The news from the hearing in Louisville, he told the crowd, was that he couldn't plant the hemp seeds Friday, but will be able to next week after signing an agreement with the state Agriculture Department.

That caused a few groans, but Lewis took the delay in stride.

"So we're not putting a seed in the ground" right away, he said. "We got what we wanted."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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