Agriculture

The year 2014 may be one of uncertainty for Kentucky’s farmers.

The federal Tobacco Transition Payment Program will end in January. For 10 years, the program has given farmers across the nation money to diversify their crops away from tobacco. Earlier this year, a federal court found that Kentucky's management of Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement funds was “non-diligent.” As a penalty a percentage of the payment will be withheld.

Roger Thomas is executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy. He told lawmakers Wednesday the reduction could affect programs such as Kentucky Proud and state-supported farmer's markets.

“I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic that the programs that I have mentioned here today, the good programs that have such a tremendous impact on not just agriculture, but Kentucky as a whole, that these programs will be able to continue in the future as they had in the past.”

Thomas said he would have a clearer picture of the effect that reductions in federal funding will have by March next year.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says, realistically, Kentucky is two years away from growing industrial hemp. 

In the meantime, he’s been talking with processors and companies interested in using hemp in their products.  Toyota has two plants in Bardstown and Lebanon that manufacture dashboards and door panels.  Comer says Toyota would most likely become a hemp customer.

"They use a fiber similar to industrial hemp called kanaff.  Kanaff is a subtropical plant and it will not grow in Kentucky," explains Comer.  "The factories in Bardstown and Lebanon import the kanaff fiber from Indonesia.  They would rather grow it in Kentucky next to their factory than import from Indonesia."

The Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill this year that sets up the regulatory framework for growing hemp if he becomes legalized on the federal level. 

Lisa Autry

Kentucky's Agriculture Commissioner says Bowling Green’s new traveling farmer’s market is a concept he hopes will catch on statewide. 

Starting next spring, a retro-fitted bus will travel to areas where the low-income have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  The mobile market will also accept forms ofgovernment assistance. 

Commissioner James Comer checked out the market this week during a stop in Bowling Green.

“Low income and elderly people have issues finding fresh food," said Comer.  "There are food deserts all across Kentucky in both cities and rural communities, and a food desert by definition is a place where you have to travel a long distance to get fresh produce.”

Comer said having more mobile farmer’s markets might be a step toward reversing some of the state’s chronic health problems. 

Kentucky food prices are at an all time high, according to the Farm Bureau’s quarterly marketplace report.

The state saw an increase of 5.7 percent increase in September from the previous quarter.  The Farm Bureau’s Dan Smaldone says the jump is partly due to last year’s drought that affected grain farmers and had a ripple effect  on other parts of the system.

He says the numbers should not be a cause of great concern, as Kentucky has experienced downward or stagnant trends in recent quarters while the national numbers have continued to rise.

“I think when we look at one snapshot in time it’s hard to say that we have an issue on our hands with food prices. So we have to be cautious not to ring too many alarms with this.”

Smaldone says the last time the Farm Bureau saw a food price  increase over 5 percent was in 2008.

Attorney General Jack Conway is advising Kentucky leaders that industrial hemp farming remains illegal in the commonwealth.

Conway issued an advisory letter on Wednesday to Gov. Steve Beshear, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and others to clarify current law related to hemp. The letter appears to deflate hopes of hemp farming proponents who have said they'd like to begin planting next year.

Kentucky lawmakers have passed legislation that would allow farmers to grow the crop if the federal government ever lifts a longstanding ban. But Attorney General Conway said that ban remains firmly in place.

The state agriculture department recently issued a news release saying it was instructed by the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission to begin drawing up regulations for hemp farming in the commonwealth. That came on the heels of comments by Justice Department officials that the federal government had no intention of prosecuting hemp farmers.

Kentucky’s Industrial Hemp Commission is serving notice to the federal government that it plans to move forward with creating regulations for hemp production in the commonwealth.

A news release from the state agriculture department says staff members have been instructed to begin the process of writing rules for the development of the long-banned crop. The state’s industrial hemp commission is calling for Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and U.S. Senator Rand Paul to write a letter to the U.S. Justice Department to “make Kentucky’s intentions known.”

Recent changes to state law have opened the door to future hemp production in Kentucky, although growing the crop is still technically illegal under federal rules.

But Commissioner Comer is pointing to recent statements by a Justice Department official who said the federal government has no intentions of prosecuting hemp farmers.

"Surely...no entity will seek to throw up a government obstacle to moving forward with another opportunity for Kentucky farmers and for manufacturing jobs."

A study conducted by the University of Kentucky contains mixed results concerning the economic viability of growing hemp. Hemp supporters have been pushing to get the crop legalized at both the state and federal levels, saying it could create thousands of jobs and help boost the bottom lines of farmers.

The UK study says hemp could be a profitable option for some farmers in central Kentucky, but not everywhere.

The Chairman of UK’s agriculture economics department told the Courier-Journal that he didn’t want to portray the study as a “negative outcome”, saying the crop “should be viewed as one more opportunity amid many opportunities for farmers." Leigh Maynard said there would be a big “learning curve” for producers and processes to climb, given that growing hemp in the U.S. has been illegal for decades.

Maynard said it's likely hemp could become a niche crop for some farmers. Hemp seeds can be used to make fuel, foods, and personal care products.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has made hemp legalization his chief legislative priority, and says he’s optimistic about the crop’s future despite the study. According to Comer, it’s difficult to estimate the economic impact of an industry that doesn’t exist.

Dept. of Agriculture

A top state official is hoping twenty-first century technology will help Kentucky school children learn about the importance of agriculture. The Mobile Science Activity Centers” will begin touring the state this fall.

The 44-foot trailers are decked out with 11 iPads a 70-inch LED monitor and a touch screen desktop computer – all paid for by a public-private partnership between the Agriculture Department and over a dozen industry groups.  

"Most school children are two, three, or more generations removed from the farm," said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. "The Mobile Science Activity Centers enable kids to learn about agriculture's importance in our everyday lives." 

The schedule for mobile units is jam-packed for the next three school years.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says federal legislation that could lead to legalizing commercial hemp production may create  research opportunities at Murray State University. Comer praises the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a farm bill amendment this week that would allow university-level study of the plant that is in the same family as marijuana.

In turn, Murray State and the University of Kentucky have shown interest in developing research programs should the federal farm bill garner Senate approval. Comer says the research amendment was a compromise.

“I’m OK with this because I believe once the universities research it and people see this is not a drug – that it’s a totally different plant than its evil cousin marijuana – that people will realize that this is a crop that is an up-and-comer and that this is something we can use to enhance our manufacturing, said Comer.

The Monroe County native sees value in hemp as a viable alternative to hard plastics that he says are less sustainable and ecologically harmful.

Fortunately for those of us who are suckers for novelty, every year fruits and vegetables seem to come in more bewitching colors, shapes and flavors. Lately, we've been tickled by the cotton candy grape and the vibrant orange Turkish eggplant.

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