Politics & Government

Advocates of industrial hemp point to Kentucky's past as top producer

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.

For advocates of reviving industrial hemp production in Kentucky, the state's past as a leading hemp producer shows the crop's potential.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul are among those pushing to revive industrial hemp in the state.

It's ironic, Comer said in a recent interview, that until the Civil War, Kentucky led the nation in industrial hemp production.

The earliest settlers westward brought hemp seed in their baggage, James F. Hopkins points out in A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. During the early 1800s, Kentucky hemp fibers were in demand for rope, sailcloth and rough fabrics used to wrap bales of cotton and make pants that were called Kentucky jeans.

Lexington was at the center of that production.

In 1838, there were 18 rope and bagging factories in Lexington that employed 1,000 workers, according to research by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter.

Lexington's John Wesley Hunt, the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies, made his fortune growing hemp and manufacturing the fibers into rope, said Jamie Millard, former president of the Lexington History Museum.

One of Hunt's factories was in downtown Lexington near North Broadway and West Third Street, Millard said.

"Hemp was the main cash crop of the state up until the Civil War, much more than tobacco was," said Klotter, state historian and a professor of history at Georgetown College.

Hemp had advantages over tobacco.

"Farmers could make a lot of money on a small area with tobacco; that was tobacco's main strength," Klotter said. But hemp could grow on the same piece of land, over and over again, because farmers laid it on the ground where it rotted so they could open up the stalks and get the fibers inside. "In doing that, it returned nutrients to the ground," he said.

"At a time when most people didn't use fertilizer and had to rotate their crops from one field to another to keep the land fertile, hemp was a much better crop for the land," Klotter said.

Statesman Henry Clay was a major hemp grower. He supported a high tariff to keep some goods out of the United States or making their cost so high that most people would buy American goods, Klotter said.

"He got hemp placed on that list to keep out Russian hemp goods, which was the competing group," Klotter said. "So it had a protected status."

After the Civil War, ship riggings started to be made of metal instead of rope. Cotton was baled in a way that didn't require fabric wrapping, and new fabrics were used to make jeans.

The hemp market crashed, Millard said.

Still, as late as 1900, Kentucky was producing 90 percent of the nation's industrial hemp.

"It was not a big crop by then, but growing and producing hemp was still centered in Kentucky," Klotter said.

During World War II, the United States could not get hemp products it had been importing from the Philippines and Russia, so the government urged farmers to grow hemp for much-needed rope and textiles, Klotter said.

Millard has a newspaper photograph of his mother, Cora Carrick, driving a tractor through hemp fields on the family's Waterwild Farm on Russell Cave Road.

A government-produced agricultural film, Hemp for Victory, shows workers harvesting hemp with My Old Kentucky Home playing in the background, Klotter said.

Sites were selected around the country to process industrial hemp fiber. "In Clark County, near the old drive-in movie theater, there is a building built to process industrial hemp," he said.

But once the war was over, Klotter said, "All that stopped."

During the 1970s, Congress designated hemp — along with marijuana and heroin — as a "Schedule 1" drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow hemp without a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

But since the mid-1990s, attention has turned to a renewal of growing industrial hemp.

Comer, a Republican, said the cash crop would give a financial boost to Kentucky's farmers. He thinks it could have an even more significant economic effect by creating manufacturing jobs.

Hemp cannot be grown in the United States, but hemp products are sold legally in forms of paper, cosmetics, lotions, auto parts, clothes and animal feed.

Good Foods Market & Café on Southland Drive sells hemp shampoo, conditioner and massage oil in its wellness center. In the grocery department, customers may buy hemp seed, hemp cooking oil and hemp milk.

"The real economic impact of creating jobs will be in manufacturing products from hemp," Comer said. "If you can create manufacturing jobs and help farmers at the same time, that's a win-win situation."

He recently revived the long-dormant Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission by calling its first meeting in more than 10 years. He serves as chairman.

Comer is talking to Dean Scott Smith of the UK College of Agriculture about performing an economic feasibility study on growing and manufacturing products from industrial hemp.

Comer said the top item on his agenda when the General Assembly convenes in January will be to get legislation passed to allow industrial hemp cultivation in Kentucky. In August, Paul, a Republican from Bowling Green, joined several other legislators to introduce a bill that would remove federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp. The bill is supported by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville.

Smith said hemp should be disassociated from illegal drugs. Industrial hemp and marijuana — while both are botanically cannabis sativa — are different plants.

"It's like a Shetland pony, a Thoroughbred and a Clydesdale. They are all horses, but they are nothing alike," he said.

Hemp and marijuana plants don't even look alike, Smith said.

Industrial hemp is bred to have a tall stalk, not many leaves. "Marijuana growers want a low growing plant that is bushy, lots of blossoms and lots of leaves," he said.

Marijuana contains large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main ingredient that gives marijuana users their high, according to UK Cooperative Extension Service research. Hemp contains only a trace — less than 1 percent — of the ingredient. "You can smoke a ton of industrial hemp and it won't make you high. All you'd get is a sore throat," Klotter said.

But not everyone is on board about growing hemp. Kentucky State Police officials have expressed concern about trying to identify who is cultivating industrial hemp legally versus who is illegally cultivating marijuana.

To prevent that, farmers in places such as Canada get a permit to grow hemp, and the Canadian government has people who inspect their fields, Klotter said. "That way you have a legal crop."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture would work closely with law enforcement "to prove the point this is not something you can slip and grow marijuana in," Comer said.

There is "misinformation" about industrial hemp and marijuana being the same plant, Comer said. Some legislators are reluctant to support industrial hemp because some of their constituents think it is the same as marijuana.

"It is totally different," he said. "Every legislator knows the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana because my staff and I have traveled the state and showed and told them."

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