Hemp growers cooperatives' report touts crop's benefits to coal

Around 1920, men processed hemp on hackling machines in a hemp processing plant in Versailles.
Around 1920, men processed hemp on hackling machines in a hemp processing plant in Versailles.

Hemp plus coal could equal economic prosperity for Appalachia, according to a new white paper released Wednesday by the Kentucky and West Virginia hemp growers cooperatives.

"It's about stimulating the hemp economy," said David Hadland, president of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association and a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission. "The public needs to know that hemp is viable, and that hemp is not marijuana. This is just another example of its use."

The cooperatives advocate blending dry hemp "hurds" with Appalachian high-sulphur coal to reduce emissions at power plants.

"Our results show that hemp biomass is a promising feedstock for power co-generation, a notion supported by recent techno-economic studies," wrote the study's authors, Katherine M. Andrews, Alex Donesky, Roger Ford and J. Eric Mathis. "The introduction of industrial hemp as a biomass energy feedstock can improve the economics of co-firing due to adaptability, high per-acre yield, and potential to be grown on post-mining land and reclamation sites."

A white paper is an informational report written by experts to give guidance on an issue.

The cooperatives recommend that Kentucky and West Virginia policy makers use economic incentives to attract biomass processors and chemical manufacturers to the region, and that they create a private-public consortium to jump-start hemp farming.

"What we're trying to show is that this is a viable crop for energy, that the peer-reviewed research is out there showing there's potential for this," Ford said Wednesday.

His company, Patriot Bioenergy, plans to begin taking soil samples in post-mining sites and other marginal land to look for optimal conditions to grow hemp.

The next step, he said, needs to be pilot-scale projects. For that, the state must get a waiver to grow hemp.

"Our goal is to try to forge a bipartisan consensus about the value of hemp for the farming and non-farming regions of the state," Ford said. "With the downturn in coal, we have to be looking at things like this and what is its potential for these types of areas."

Last year, Kentucky passed legislation to allow farmers to be licensed to grow hemp if the federal government allows it to be grown. The U.S. Justice Department has said it will not enforce laws against marijuana production in states that have legalized it.

But Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway issued an opinion in September stating that farmers who plant hemp could face criminal liability and have crops seized.

State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who lobbied for hemp, has said he can't recommend that farmers move forward unless the risk of prosecution is resolved.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture announced Jan. 2 that producers there may begin registering to grow industrial hemp in March.

Hadland, the Kentucky hemp cooperative's president, said that Ryan Loflin, the Colorado farmer who planted hemp last year, is working with the Kentucky and West Virginia co-ops.

"Hopefully, policymakers will look at a paper like this and we can get some sort of a waiver. West Virginia's working on that; Kentucky should be working on that," Hadland said. California, he said, also is working on a 2014 crop. "Kentucky doesn't need to be last again."