We Americans are heavy consumers of meat, and we're increasingly reminded that eating less of it will shrink our carbon footprint. Growing the crops to feed all those animals releases lots of greenhouse gases.

Kentucky Ag Commissioner Reveals 5 Pilot Hemp Projects

Feb 17, 2014

Kentucky's agriculture commissioner says the reintroduction of hemp production will start with at least five pilot projects across the state where the crop flourished until being banned for its ties to marijuana.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said Monday he doesn't know how many hemp acres will be planted this year.

The new federal farm bill allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp-cultivation pilot projects for research in states that already allow the growing of hemp. Farmers will work with university researchers to study the crop.

Central Kentucky farmer Michael Lewis says the size of his hemp crop depends on the availability of seeds.

Hemp production was banned by the federal government decades ago. Hemp and marijuana are the same species. Hemp has a negligible content of the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner is moving forward with the creation of industrial hemp pilot projects in the commonwealth.

The announcement was expected after President Obama signed a Farm Bill into law last week that allows hemp to be grown in the U.S. for research purposes. Staff members in the offices of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and  Attorney General Jack Conway are reviewing the bill’s language regarding pilot projects to make sure whatever happens in Kentucky is within federal guidelines.

Comer, a farmer from Monroe County, says he plans to provide more details on Kentucky's pilot hemp projects at an announcement Feb. 17. He says the projects will be based throughout different parts of the state and will have research focuses with different university affiliations.

Comer wants U.S.  law enforcement agencies to allow certain hemp seeds for the pilot project to be imported. That’s one of the first steps necessary to get any form of hemp farming off the ground in this country.

According to a news release from Commissioner Comer’s office, Attorney General Conway has pledged to work for a waiver from federal drug laws that would eventually allow for the expansion of industrial hemp production for commercial purposes.

Hemp advocates are calling the Farm Bill signed into law by President Obama a major milestone for the crop.

Pro-hemp groups think research pilot programs included in the bill will lead to greater things down the road. The Farm Bill signed by the President Friday contains an amendment that legalizes hemp production in the U.S. for research purposes.

The amendment was originally introduced by a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen, including Republican Thomas Massie, from Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district. The amendment gives the green light to state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for academic and agricultural research purposes.

However, the new rules only apply to states like Kentucky that have already legalized industrial hemp farming.

The hemp issue gained momentum in the commonwealth last year, with state agriculture commissioner James Comer making legalization his top legislative priority.

Hemp farming has also been endorsed by Kentucky GOP  Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, as well as the state’s only Congressional Democrat, Representative John Yarmuth of Louisville.

Hemp supporters are hailing the federal Farm Bill that Congress will vote on in coming days.  The bipartisan agreement is expected to clear the House and Senate.  The measure contains a provision that allows universities and state agriculture departments to grow hemp for research purposes. 

“Hemp has this long history in the United States, but that history pretty much ended in the 1950s, and all the genetics are lost.  We need to have research on new varieties," says Eric Steenstra, president of  the advocacy group Vote Hemp.   "A lot of things have changed in the last 60 years, and there are new markets and opportunities.”

Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill last year that allows industrial hemp production if a federal ban is lifted. 

“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,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said in a news release.

Comers hails the Farm Bill provision as a giant step toward restoring the crop, which used to make products ranging from clothes to cosmetics.

Hemp was banned decades ago when the government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana.

Eleven states, including Tennessee, have introduced hemp legislation this year.

Lisa Autry

Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner is asking you to add one more New Year’s resolution to your list.  James Comer wants families to spend at least ten percent of their food dollars this year on locally grown food.

There are several ways to buy Kentucky Proud products.  Jackson Rolett with the Community Farmer’s Market in Bowling Green says the indoor market provides consumers with fresh produce even in the winter.

"Some of the things we can offer are a lot of squash and greens, a lot of root crops, turnips, beets, carrots, potatoes," explains Rolett.  "We also have a lot of farmers who are diversifying into high tunnel production and greenhouse production, so we have some producers here with red tomatoes.

Another way to buy Kentucky Proud is by visiting certain grocery chains, including Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods. 

Kentucky’s elected leaders are again asking the federal government whether or not the commonwealth can legally grow industrial hemp.  Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and some members of Kentucky's congressional delegation have sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The letter asks the DEA to clarify its position on industrial hemp.  A Justice Department memo issued in August provides guidance concerning marijuana enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana.  Commissioner Comer believes industrial hemp should be treated the same way. 

"Recognizing the intent of the Aug. 29 memo, it would defy common sense to allow states to move forward with marijuana activity, but ignore states that have passed laws allowing for the production of industrial hemp," writes Comer. 

The letter is also signed by U.S. Senator Rand Paul and Congressmen Thomas Massie and John Yarmuth.  The letter puts the government on notice that Kentucky will move forward with hemp production unless the state hears otherwise.

The Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 50 in the 2013 session that sets up a regulatory framework for hemp production.

Kentucky's tobacco industry has undergone major changes in the past few decades from the way it's grown and harvested, to the way it's sold and marketed. WKU folklore professor Dr. Ann Ferrell spent the past eight years researching what the changes have meant to tobacco families and what the future holds in her new book "Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century".

Kentucky tobacco farmers stand to lose an estimated $12 million because of federal budget cuts related to the sequester. Those cuts are scheduled to hit the next round of price support payments sent to about 100,000 Kentucky tobacco farmers and quota holders.

Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney told WKU Public Radio the payments should be exempt from the federal spending cuts.

"This shouldn't even be considered for sequestration because it's actually a contract that was signed between the tobacco producers and the tobacco manufacturers. Really, the federal government was just holding the money and making the program work."

Haney says members of Kentucky's congressional delegation and farm lobby are teaming up with their counterparts in other states as the next tobacco quota payment nears.

If a Barren County organization has its way, an unoccupied building on Glasgow's downtown square will be turned into a year-round farmers' market.

Sustainable Glasgow has applied for a matching grant from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund to pay for half of the cost of renovating the building.

"It could be our permanent home, it would be on the square, we could have an indoor food court, and we could market more local farm products and farm-to-table prepared foods," Sustainable Glasgow President Jerry Ralston told WKU Public Radio.

The group's plans for the facility would also include a full commercial kitchen and cold storage for produce that could be sold by vendors in the building and wholesaled to local restaurants, schools, and hospitals.

Ralston says he hopes to hear within the next few months whether Sustainable Glasgow's grant application has been approved.