Jean-Marie Lawson-Spann is on a mission to become Kentucky’s first female agriculture commissioner.
The Bowling Green Democrat announced her 2015 candidacy in Frankfort Wednesday and is making a series of stops across the state in the coming days.
At the WKU Ag Expo Center Thursday, Lawson appeared alongside former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith who called her "the right person at the right time to move Kentucky agriculture forward."
The 36-year-old Lawson-Spann is a marketing executive whose family owned a farm equipment business for decades.
"I had direct responsibility for marketing and business development," she explained. "I traveled the commonwealth finding ways to grow our family's businesses and I want to bring these same marketing and business talents to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture."
Lawson-Spann is also the host of a local radio show focused on agriculture. If elected, she pledged to create and expand markets for Kentucky farmers and continue efforts toward allowing farmers to grow hemp for industrial purposes.
"I want to make one thing perfectly clear," stated Lawson-Spann. I'm not running against anyone. I'm running for the office of Commissioner of Agriculture for the commonwealth of Kentucky."
First-term Agriculture Commissioner James Comer could seek re-election, though he’s also considering a run for the Republican nomination for governor next year.
The 2014 Farm Bill allows state agriculture departments and universities to grow industrial hemp for research. The projects were delayed when the federal government detained a shipment of imported seeds. After taking the matter to court, federal drug officials eventually issued a permit for the seeds.
Hemp seeds are in the ground in south central Kentucky.
Twelve varieties of the seeds were planted this week in a small, experimental plot at the WKU farm.
The research at WKU will be similar to projects at the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, but WKU Agriculture Professor Todd Willian says the results may not be entirely the same.
"Soils can vary even in short distances. Of course the climate is relatively the same, but a little bit different when you go further north, so it will be interesting to see," stated Willian. "We really don't know exactly how it will grow. We know it grew well in the past in Kentucky, but that was many, many decades ago."
The Bowling Green hemp is being grown with a focus on fiber and hemp seeds.
The crop has a growing season similar to corn and should be ready for harvest this fall.
Kentucky’s burgeoning hemp industry may receive a shot in the arm later this year if the state changes a loan program for agricultural processors.
Roger Thomas is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy. He says a loan program designed to cover the costs of processing other agricultural products could apply to hemp processing once state universities have determined which hemp products are best suited for Kentucky.
“If the research proves that it’s a viable crop for Kentucky farmers, then perhaps later this year the Ag Development Board might look at tweaking some guidelines to allow the County Agricultural Investment Program, the county funds, to be accessed for that purpose.”
State agriculture experts predict that the cost of creating infrastructure for a new hemp industry will affect how successful it can become.
Now that hemp seeds have made it into Kentucky soil, larger questions remain about the impact industrial hemp will have on the economy.
Proponents like Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer say hemp has a market that includes hundreds of products ranging from cosmetics to automobile paneling.
University of Kentucky Agriculture Professor Will Snell
“It’s going to be a piece of the puzzle for some producers, potentially, but at the present time I think the market will evolve slowly, and don’t necessarily think at this point in time, especially in the short run, it would be a significant number of producers," says University of Kentucky Agriculture Professor Will Snell.
Snell co-authored at 2013 report that suggested only a few dozen jobs would be created and that hemp would amount to less than one percent of Kentucky’s farm cash receipts.
Hear more about Kentucky’s hemp comeback and its prospects of boosting the economy during Morning Edition Monday at 7:50 a.m. central time, 8:50 a.m. eastern time.
Hemp has turned into a legitimate test crop in Kentucky after a legal battle over imported seeds. Researchers are planting seeds to start gauging the potential for the non-intoxicating cousin of marijuana.
University of Kentucky agronomy researchers planted a small plot Tuesday at their Spindletop Farm near the Lexington campus. Dr. David Williams says 13 varieties of hemp were planted and with good weather and enough rainfall, the crop should be harvested in October. Factors Williams and others will look for after treating all types of hemp in the trial the same will include whether one yields more quantity than another and how qualities like the plants' fibers or seeds compare.
The seeds were part of a shipment released after a legal standoff between Kentucky's Agriculture Department and the federal government.
Another test hemp plot affiliated with Murray State University has also been planted.
A 250-pound shipment of hemp seeds detained by federal officials for two weeks has been delivered to Kentucky's Agriculture Department.
The seeds that spurred a legal fight are expected to be planted in Kentucky soil in the coming days for research projects.
The seed from Italy arrived on a UPS truck Friday at the department's office in Frankfort.
Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to state agriculture commissioner James Comer, says the seeds will be divided into batches for pilot projects around the state. Six universities are helping with the research.
The seeds were sprung from confinement after federal drug officials approved a permit Thursday, ending the standoff. The state agriculture department sued the federal government after the shipment was stopped by U.S. Customs in Louisville earlier this month.
The air in Richwood, W.Va., is saturated with the smell of ramps — a pungent, garlicky, peppery smell so strong that it eclipses almost everything else in the room. Under this smell there's the faint aroma of bacon grease, in which the ramps have been fried. They're served with brown beans and ham.
As hundreds of people wait in line for their meal, local songwriter John Wyatt plays his Richwood Ramp Song, including this verse:
Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner says he’s looking forward to a court hearing Friday over his department’s lawsuit against the federal government.
James Comer this week sued three government agencies—the U.S. Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection--as well as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, over a 250 pound shipment of hemp seeds that is being held by federal customs officials in Louisville.
Language in the latest federal Farm Bill allows certain states that have adopted a regulatory framework to plant hemp for the first time in decades, and Kentucky passed a law allowing pilot hemp planting projects run by state-funded universities.
But Comer says federal agents in Louisville have continued to come up with reasons why the latest hemp shipment must be held. The Commissioner says a hearing is set for 1 p.m. eastern time Friday before a federal judge in Louisville.
“We believe that it’s a good sign, that we’re going to be in front of a federal judge this soon after filing a motion," the Monroe County native told WKU Public Radio. "So, hopefully we can get the seeds, because these seeds are going to the University of Kentucky. It’s not like these seeds are going to some shady, upstart business somewhere.”
Kentucky's first legal planting of hemp seeds in decades is being postponed.
Officials from the Kentucky Agriculture Department, Kentucky State University, and pro-hemp groups were scheduled to plant hemp seeds Friday in Rockcastle County as part of a pilot project following the recent relaxing of state and federal rules regarding the crop.
But Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced Thursday that the event has been postponed following a standoff between his department and federal officials over a detained shipment containing 250 pounds of hemp seeds.
The Agriculture Department filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the federal government, in an effort to get the shipment released by customs officials in Louisville.
Kentucky lawmakers passed a law allowing hemp to be planted as part of university-based research projects. Hemp advocates say the crop's fiber and oilseed can be used to make rope, paper, bio-fuels, cosmetics, and healthy foods.
In 1970, the federal government placed hemp on the list of Schedule One drugs, making it illegal to grow.