Kentucky is again king of hemp, according to officials who spoke at the first Kentucky Hemp Days event on Saturday.
Held in Cynthiana, the festival will be an annual celebration of the crop's revival, which began after Kentucky lawmakers cleared a path for legal cultivation beginning with the General Assembly in 2013 and in Congress in 2014.
On Saturday, as a crowd turned out to hear the latest developments a day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., inserted language in the federal farm bill that will remove hemp from the controlled substance list, distancing it from marijuana.
"Industrial hemp gives Kentucky the opportunity to be first in something," said Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner. "We know it has true economic value here. ... Other states have modeled their hemp programs after Kentucky's due to the success we have right here. ... It is time to legalize hemp on a national level. It's not a novelty anymore. ... It's time to unleash its economic potential by legalizing it through federal government. It's time to legalize the crop."
If the change makes it through both the Senate and the House, it will give additional protections for farmers like Brian Furnish, who will grow 300 acres of hemp in Harrison County this year. In partnership with Ananda Hemp, his company will contract for another 350 acres, he said.
Altogether, about 10 farmers will grow 1,000 acres of hemp in Harrison County, which has been the state's top hemp producer.
But none of it will qualify for federal crop insurance, which forces farmers to self-insure and limits potential production that is needed to meet growing demand.
"Our sales are up 500 percent in the last four months and the sales just continue to come in," Furnish said Saturday. "Demand is here right now and is going to continue to increase."
If the provision passes this year, Furnish also expects to see more research and development dollars pour into the field.
"That would tell the DEA and the FDA and the USDA that this is a legal crop and the government needs to get out of the way and let free market take over," he said.
Quarles told the crowd Kentucky saw $25 million in investment last year, and there are now 70 hemp-related companies that are providing jobs and more than 200 farmers growing industrial hemp.
Just as in the 1900s, when the Bluegrass region grew 75 percent of all hemp, Kentucky again leads the country in acres of hemp grown, with 15,000 this year, and in sales, with nearly $17 million in Kentucky-grown derived products last year, he said.
That is hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the $9.2 billion market of the legal cannabis industry in the U.S., and is still a niche in Kentucky's $6 billion farm economy, but Quarles and other lawmakers Saturday said they expect that will change, and they hailed the economic potential of the crop.
At Furnish's farm, people toured a new lab built to distill the "green matter" from the hemp into hemp oil, touched a bale of raw hemp fiber and saw the one and only hemp plant on display, in a pot.
Mike Fisher, who works for 3M in Cynthiana, came to tour the farm. "For this rural community, it's pretty impressive," he said. He'd love to see more being grown and processed.
"For our community, it will be a neat addition. It will bring more jobs and different types of products. It's just a place for us to grow," he said. "And in a rural community that used to be based strictly on tobacco, this really gives us a chance to step into a new area. ... Our economy as a whole is really starting to take a jump, and I think this is part of it."
All of the hemp in Kentucky is grown under the auspices of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, which signs agreements with individual farmers and processors to grow, handle and sell the hemp as pilot projects to study the market and conduct research.
"They're creating products people want to buy," Quarles said.
Many of those kinds of products were on display Saturday at the festival, from oils containing hemp-derived cannabidiol oil to T-shirts made with hemp fiber and brownies and ice cream made by a local church with hemp "hearts."