Like college basketball, bourbon, and thoroughbred horses, hemp seems to course through Kentucky’s bloodlines. Henry Clay grew it, back in the era when the hardy plant was used for thousands of products, from food and fuel to ropes, canvas, and medicine. Modern industrial hemp, which consumes less water than rival crops like cotton, can be used for an equally impressive range of products, including car dashboards, soaps, industrial absorbents, granola bars, and craft beer. Like cannabis, hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant, but it lacks the psychoactive chemical, THC, that provides weed’s high. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 helped make hemp cost-prohibitive to grow (though the government encouraged growers during the war years), and that situation worsened after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
Then, in 2014, the U.S. Farm Bill cracked open a legislative window: The new law allowed states to develop research programs for industrial hemp, sowing hopes of reviving the long-dormant industry. More than 30 states passed varying companion bills to enable state growing programs. The Bluegrass State embraced the opportunity: Farmers in Kentucky will grow close to 13,000 acres of industrial hemp in 2017, more than triple what it grew last year and surpassing every other state except Colorado.
Kentucky’s production is still only a fraction of its agricultural economy—even if state hemp fields tripled over what they were 2016, and the yields increased 50 percent, hemp would only be 3 percent of the agricultural market, according to University of Kentucky economist Will Snell. But in the country’s fifth-poorest state, where the opiate epidemic is prevalent, the effort by lawmakers and the agriculture department to convert old tobacco farms to hemp production offers an economic ray of sunshine.
"What this industry does is give people an enormous amount of optimism, that there are solutions, and that we’re working on them instead of holding our hands up in despair. The beauty of this plant is that we are all aware of what is possible.”
- Chad Rosen, the CEO of Victor Hemp Foods
Rosen argues that hemp’s promise extends beyond rural Kentucky: He and his fellow hemp processors have created close to 100 jobs in Louisville and Lexington, plus the ancillary benefits of contract labor for machinery repairs and parts. Hemp holds particular promise for places like Nashville, which has a few licensed growers already, and Asheville, near the epicenter of North Carolina’s furniture and textile industry. But the industry is hamstrung by hemp’s murky legal status: Farmers can grow it, but farm insurance bureaus won’t sell them crop insurance; companies can market it, but federally backed banks won’t lend them money.
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