Hemp is back at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, after an absence of more than a century.
A small research plot that was planted six weeks ago is growing nicely, testing two hemp varieties: Felina 32, appropriate for grain-based food products, and Futura 75, useful for cloth, rope and other textiles. Harvest is expected in September, when Ashland’s plants will be processed along with those from research plots in Louisville and Shelbyville.
What happens after that is less certain.
“For those of us trying to grow hemp now, we find ourselves in this sort of quasi-legal situation. We’re producing a crop that isn’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because it remains a controlled substance, and the private sector is very leery about getting involved to help us,” said Henry County farmer Chad Rosen, managing partner of Hemp Foods America.
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Rosen was selling his company’s merchandise at Ashland on Saturday. It was part of a Hemp History Week symposium that featured a tour of the research plot, educational lectures and a “hemp-infused” dinner for 75 guests.
Rosen ripped open a bag of organic hemp seeds and passed out handfuls. They tasted like mushy sunflower seeds.
“It’s a great source of protein and Omega 3,” said Rosen, a California native who moved to Kentucky last year to join the state’s burgeoning hemp movement. “It’s like eating fish, but without the risk of taking in mercury.”
The United States government essentially made hemp illegal to grow in 1970 because of its close association with marijuana. Hemp has nowhere near the level of psychoactive THC that marijuana does. But both plants are Cannabis sativa and look enough alike to confuse some people — particularly drug control agents swooping over fields in helicopters.
Starting with the 2014 farm bill, Congress slowly has loosened some restrictions, prodded by farmers and state officials in places like Kentucky, where hemp could take tobacco’s place as a significant cash crop. After all, hemp once was a major crop in Kentucky. Henry Clay, longtime U.S. senator and secretary of state, grew tons of hemp at Ashland during the 19th century, with most of the back-breaking work being done by his 50 or so slaves.
“I’m going to rig the Navy with cordage made of American hemp — Kentucky hemp — Ashland hemp,” Clay wrote to a fellow senator in 1842.
This year, more than 4,000 acres of hemp are growing in Kentucky, either through university research projects or private farms that have a memorandum of understanding with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. (Ashland’s plot is being grown in cooperation with the University of Kentucky and United Hemp Industries.) Hemp advocates say the versatile plant can be used to make dozens of different products — from soap to car parts.
However, hemp farmers say they’re still jumping hurdles. Federal rules make it difficult for them to get viable seeds, move their product to market, purchase crop insurance or secure U.S. Farm Service Agency Loans.
No Kentuckian should expect to turn a profit on hemp just yet, Brent Burchett, director of value-added plant production at the state Agriculture Department, told the audience at Ashland on Saturday. But that will change in time, Burchett said.
“Every year, we approach the (congressional) delegation to chip away at the barriers to successful commercialization,” state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said in an interview before he addressed the group at Ashland. “The rules are very confusing right now, and there are a lot of differences between one state and another as well.”
Quarles said his own great-grandfather grew hemp in Kentucky during World War II as part of the wartime industrial effort. As Kentuckians regain the legal right to grow hemp, they’ll also have to relearn how to grow it by experimenting with varieties and cultivation techniques, he said.
“It’s a pampered crop,” Quarles said. “Much like tobacco, you can’t just put it out and let it sit. You have to carry it all the way through production.”