Hemp, which was Kentucky’s biggest cash crop for a century before tobacco, is poised for a comeback thanks to bipartisan legislation introduced Thursday in Congress. It’s about time.
Regular hemp cultivation in this country was banned in 1937. That’s when federal law enforcement officials, who feared the repeal of Prohibition would leave them nothing to do, launched the first war on drugs.
With a lot of “reefer madness” hype, the government banned marijuana. Also swept up in that ban was industrial hemp, a botanical cousin in the cannabis family that looks similar to pot but can’t make you high no matter how much you smoke.
Hemp has only a fraction of the mind-altering chemical THC that marijuana contains. But hemp can be processed into an amazing number of useful things, including food, fiber, oil, medicine, paper, biodegradable plastic and even fuel.
Sens. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, are sponsors of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. Rep. Jamie Comer, a Kentucky Republican, is among those who plan to sponsor a companion bill in the House, McConnell said.
The bill removes industrial hemp from the government’s list of controlled substances and classifies it as an agricultural commodity. It allows states to regulate hemp production, hemp researchers to apply for federal grants and hemp farmers to get crop insurance.
The bill builds on 2014 legislation that created hemp pilot programs in 38 states. The only state now growing more experimental hemp than Kentucky is Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012 despite a continued federal ban.
The Graves family of Winchester, which grew hemp for generations before it was banned, formed Alto Holdings in 2014 to work with the state to develop seeds and business models for growing hemp for a variety of uses.
“We’re ready to scale up,” Andrew Graves, Alto Holdings’ chairman, said in a news release. The company has been allotted 2,700 acres to grow this year under the state’s pilot program, making it one of the nation’s largest growers. It is working with 60 farmers across the state.
AgTech Scientific announced plans in January to create 271 jobs at a new hemp products development and manufacturing center in Paris.
In the 1800s, Kentucky produced most of the nation’s hemp, which was used mainly for rope, sail cloth and industrial bags. Processing hemp for fibers then required back-breaking manual labor, and most of the people who did it before the Civil War were slaves.
John Wesley Hunt, who built Lexington’s Hunt-Morgan House in 1814, made his fortune in hemp, as did his neighbors, Benjamin Gratz and Thomas Hart. Hart’s son-in-law, Henry Clay, grew hemp and advocated for the crop in Congress.
From about 1800 until the Civil War in 1861, hemp was Lexington’s biggest industry. A city of 6,800 people in 1838, Lexington then had 18 hemp rope and bag factories employing 1,000 workers.
An 1855 Lexington map shows several hemp “ropewalks” and bag factories in the blocks north of Short Street. Several Central Kentucky farmers named their plantations “Waveland” because fields of lacy-topped hemp waved in the breeze.
Most Kentucky hemp was shipped north for sailcloth and ship rigging, or shipped south for tying and bagging bales of cotton. In the 1850s, Kentucky produced 40,000 of the nation’s 71,500 tons of hemp.
Then the hemp industry unraveled. The Civil War ended slavery and decimated the South’s cotton economy. Steamships replaced sailing ships. Free trade agreements allowed Asian jute to replace hemp for rope.
Even as the hemp industry declined, Kentucky dominated. Ten Central Kentucky counties produced 90 percent of America’s hemp in 1889. Hemp remained the state’s biggest cash crop until 1915, when it was eclipsed by tobacco.
Anti-drug crusaders dealt the final blow against hemp, despite a brief reprieve during World War II when hemp was grown in Kentucky for the war effort because jute supplies were cut off by fighting in the Pacific.
Although hemp fibers make a wonderful cloth, most entrepreneurs now eye the plant’s seeds and oil for higher-value uses that were unknown in the 1800s.
Will hemp be a bonanza for Kentucky? Probably not. But it could become a significant crop and industry once again, giving Kentucky farmers and entrepreneurs another tool for economic development in a state that needs every tool it can get.