The green plant grows fast like a weed, reaching a height of maybe 15 feet. Not known for its beauty, it can be refined into a variety of profitable commercial products: paper, textiles, clothing, paint insulation, biofuel, animal feed, personal care products, rope, building materials and oils for medical conditions.
The biggest problem with the plant is that it resembles its illegal cannabis cousin, marijuana. But it does not contain much of the chemical compound THC that makes people “high.”
Hemp has Kentucky’s farming community abuzz. Its popularity is soaring and it is among the hottest topics in this year’s race for state agriculture commissioner. A staple in years past in Kentucky’s farm economy, hemp is booming again in Kentucky.
Candidates in the race speak highly of hemp’s potential but have different opinions on how it should be handled.
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The political parties will choose their nominees in the May 21 primary election and Kentucky voters will pick the commissioner in the Nov. 5 general election.
The agriculture commissioner is responsible for expanding agricultural markets, increasing rural economic development and promoting the Kentucky Proud Program, a marketing program for foods grown in the state.
Hemp is the subject of the political season in Kentucky’s farm community.
“People, especially the media, want to talk to me nearly every day about hemp,” said Quarles, who is seeking re-election to another four-year term. . “I don’t know if it will ever be bigger than tobacco but its rise in Kentucky over the last few years is amazing. It’s the fastest growing area in Kentucky farming.”
Quarles, a Scott County farmer who holds seven degrees, including a law degree and doctorate degree from Vanderbilt University in higher education administration, said Kentucky’s farm economy is worth about $5.7 billion, including livestock and crops. Cash receipts for tobacco last year was about $300 million.
Hemp makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s farm economy but its growth is phenomenal.
Hemp sales last year in Kentucky totaled about $60 million, a 300 percent increase over the previous year, said Quarles. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville got a hemp legalization provision included in the 2018 farm bill and Kentucky was the first to file a statewide hemp-growing plan.
Quarles, a former state representative, announced in January that the state has approved 1,035 applications to cultivate up to 42,086 acres of hemp this year. The state also approved 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space for hemp cultivation.
Last year, the state approved 16,100 acres for hemp.
Nearly 1,000 Kentucky farmers will grow hemp this year and more than 120 companies in the state are processing the plant, said Quarles.
Individuals and businesses must be licensed by the state to grow or process industrial hemp in Kentucky. Under laws passed by the Kentucky General Assembly and the U.S. Congress, it is unlawful to possess any raw or unprocessed hemp, hemp plants, or hemp seed without a license from the state.
License holders must pass background checks and consent to allow program staff and law enforcement officers to inspect any premises where hemp or hemp products are being grown, handled, stored, or processed.
Quarles, 35, said he is proud of his handling of hemp in Kentucky. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.
His GOP opponent, Polyniak, disagrees.
Polyniak, 47, was one of the first in Kentucky in 2014 to get a state permit to cultivate hemp. His Kentucky Cannabis Company produces hemp extracts and CBD products. He got into the business after he found CBD oil helped his son, Colten, fight epilepsy seizures.
Polyniak, who ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, said the state’s hemp program should be even more successful. The state is not doing enough to encourage small farmers to grow hemp, he said.
That’s hogwash, said Quarles. “I opened up the permit process to all farmers and it has attracted big and small farms,” he said.
Polyniak also said farmers should be allowed to grow hemp with higher concentrations of THC in order to produce better oils. Quarles said Congress decides that issue at the federal level of government.
Both Quarles and Polyniak said they are concerned with a recent news report that truckers, now free to haul hemp from state to state, have been stopped and sometimes arrested by police who can’t tell if they have intercepted a legal farm crop or marijuana, since they look and smell alike.
The two Republican candidates said labeling standards by the Food and Drug Administration could be improved. They also said law enforcement officials may need more training in distinguishing hemp from marijuana.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, said earlier this week that he will file legislation to address any “glitches” hemp might face.
Democratic candidate Conway, a farmer and an operations manager for a transportation company, also said Quarles should be more accommodating to small farmers.
“Nobody is looking out for small farmers,” said Conway, 63. “Ryan and I get along fine, but I think I am more experienced in farming and managing a large payroll than he is.”
Conway spent 12 years on the Scott County Board of Education, including two as its chairman, and is a member of the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation Board.
Trigg, 60, a retired Air Force officer and owner/operator of a beef cattle farm and two green houses in Barren County, said hemp can be a “great benefit” for Kentucky farmers. He is expecting to raise his first crop of hemp this year on two to three acres.
“Its potential is unlimited. I just want to make sure all farmers share in its profits and not just corporations and large farms,” he said. “I also don’t want large businesses to monopolize its production. Small farmers need a lifeline and hemp may be it.”
Trigg, who spent two terms on the Glasgow City Council, said police need better tools to differentiate between hemp and marijuana.
“It is a problem,” he said. “No police man is ever going to be able to eyeball them and tell the difference. The key may have to be proper packaging.”
On the issue of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky, the Republican candidates take a different approach . Quarles said he supports more research on the topic, but said he will follow the lead of the General Assembly. Polyniak, his GOP primary opponent, favors legalizing medical marijuana. Both candidates said they oppose legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Both Democrats said medicinal marijuana should be legalized and did not directly oppose allowing recreational use of marijuana.
“If it benefits the farmers and and brings revenue into the state with the legislature’s approval and control of the state agriculture department, I don’t see why not,” Conway said. “I wouldn’t fight all that.”
Trigg said it’s going to be difficult to have medical marijuana without recreational marijuana. “They go hand in hand,” he said.
In campaign fund raising, Quarles surpasses every candidate.
The latest campaign finance reports filed with the state show Quarles with receipts of $213,447. Polyniak reported $7,300 and Conway and Trigg had no campaign receipts.
As Congress returns from a fall recess, Republicans and Democrats plan to wage fierce campaigns aimed at lawmakers in swing districts amid the ongoing impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump.