If Congress passes a federal Farm Bill this week, Kentucky could be growing hemp this year for the first time in decades.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, announced late Tuesday he had inserted language into a compromise bill to allow not just universities but state departments of agriculture to conduct research on industrial hemp, including growing test plots.
McConnell's language appears to be crafted to allow Kentucky's agriculture commissioner, James Comer, to move forward.
"By giving Commissioner Comer the go-ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers," McConnell said in a statement. "By exploring innovative ways to use hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, while avoiding negative impact to Kentucky law enforcement's efforts at marijuana interdiction, the pilot programs authorized by this legislation could help boost our state's economy."
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The U.S. House of Representatives could take up the Farm Bill on Wednesday.
Comer said Tuesday that he has been working the phones, talking to potential processing companies about coming to Kentucky.
"For months, we have tried to get some assurance at the federal level that Kentucky producers can grow industrial hemp without fear of government harassment or prosecution. This is what we've been waiting for," Comer said. "I appreciate Sen. Mitch McConnell's efforts to get hemp language in the farm bill. Without his protection of the language, there is no way it would have survived the process. I'm also grateful to Sen. Rand Paul and Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie for supporting our efforts from the beginning. And I again want to thank state Sen. Paul Hornback for having the courage to sponsor Senate Bill 50, which makes industrial hemp production legal under Kentucky law."
Kentucky should qualify with that legal framework, Comer said.
"We're going to have to come up with a pilot program, which would work with some universities and have research components, and work with companies to process the hemp," Comer said. "We would like to have these private companies work with universities to fund the research instead of trying to get grants and use education funding."
Caudill Seed company in Louisville is interested, he said. A call to Caudill Seed was not immediately returned.
Research on planting, seed varieties, and harvesting and marketing all will be needed to revive a crop that has been lost to modern American farming.
Funding for that research would almost certainly have to come from private sources to get anything in the ground this year, a key goal for Comer, who wants to position the state at the forefront of hemp's return.
"The only way this crop is going to be profitable for farmers is to get the processors in the state," Comer said. "We're trying desperately to do that; I'll keep working the phones."
Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission chairman Brian Furnish also hailed the amendment.
"We still have work to do, and this isn't the end of the road, but it's unbelievable progress, and I could not be happier with this development," Furnish said. "I appreciate Sen. McConnell holding firm for Kentucky, and I believe the day is coming when we will see this crop completely restored to the commonwealth."