Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:17 am
By VICTORIA ALDRICH
Of all the plants that humans have cultivated throughout history, few are as versatile as hemp. Its fibers easily convert into rope, clothing and furniture material, insulation, plastics, paper and mulch. Its seeds are perfect for birdseed, hemp milk, protein powder and fish bait. Hemp oil is a cheap, nonallergenic base for paints and cosmetics. The leaves taste great in a warm loaf of bread or a salad.
One day, your Kentucky-made car may sport a hemp-based dashboard, state Commissioner of Agriculture James R. Comer told Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce members Wednesday at the year’s first AT&T Public Policy luncheon.
“We successfully passed legislation to allow hemp to be grown in Kentucky this year,” Comer said, through a provision in the newly passed federal Farm Bill. “We are going to have six pilot projects at six universities.”
Since taking office in 2012, Comer has gained attention for drastic measures taken to reduce waste of funds, including monitoring employee vehicle usage through GPS systems. He also increased public accountability by publishing his office’s entire expenditure report. A critical goal this year is stimulating agricultural production and research, factors he describes as key to stimulating Kentucky’s struggling east side.
Few projects are as ambitious as a hemp cultivation program legalized at six state universities through the Farm Bill.
Each university will cultivate a specific variety, Comer explained, and focus on creating a specific finished product.
The University of Kentucky will grow an Asian cultivar to study industrial hemp production and also biomedical canniboid research.
The University of Louisville will study bioremediation techniques, and Kentucky State University will grow state heirloom seeds for industrial use in conjunction with the Homegrown by Heroes veterans program.
Murray State University will grow European cultivars for fiber studies.
Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University both will grow Canadian seeds for industrial and renewable energy projects.
“They will work with private-sector farmers to study production aspects and the types of products they can produce,” Comer said. “We farmers want to know what is the cost of production per acre, what is the yield per acre, what is the best time to plant, so we are very excited,” Comer said. “I perceive the hemp being grown on marginal land, on land that is currently being underutilized. You can grow it on land with a greater slope or on land where you wouldn’t grow other things.”
“Boyle County, from a historical perspective, was ground-zero for industrial production for hemp, and we’d like to be at that spot again. Can you give us a hand?” chamber member Mike Perros asked.
“What grows best in western Kentucky may not grow best in Boyle County so we have at least two good years of research that has to be done,” Comer said. “We’re making progress, and it’s not at the level some people would like, but a year ago it was illegal to grow it.”
Few agricultural endeavors generate as much controversy in the United States as hemp production, an established industry throughout the world.
Liberal and conservative backers agree on its endless industrial potential, ease of growth and lack of hallucinogenic content. Critics dislike its low THC levels compared to its notorious cousin, marijuana, and how easy it is to confuse both plants during air surveillance, the most common way police discover illegal cultivation.
“We can pretty much grow it anywhere we want to. The language of the Farm Bill requires it to be administered through a university pilot project,” Comer said.
“This was illegal a few months ago so we’ve made a giant step, but we are going to have to go through a lot of bureaucracy. We found out customs and border patrol hadn’t read the Farm Bill so we had a container of seeds that was turned around and is headed back to China. As I understand it, we have very few seeds in Kentucky.”
Securing companies to process and sell finished goods is critical to jump starting research.
Comer said one company, Caudill Seed, will process seed-based products at plants in Louisville, Morehead and Winchester. Industrial hemp grown in western Kentucky will be purchased by a company in western Minnesota to make plywood and other items for the construction industry.
“Anything that you can make from a tree, you can just about use from hemp. That’s why it’s more sustainable,” Comer said.
Production in eastern Kentucky will focus on creating renewable energy options and possibly automotive manufacturing, Comer added.
“In Germany, Mercedes and BMWs are manufactured using dashboards and other products from the hemp fibers. If you can replace plastic with hemp, that’s taking a giant step toward being sustainable and that’s great for the farmers.”
The project also complements another initiative the state has launched to replace eastern Kentucky’s dead coal industry. Locally produced crops and finished goods will feature a new symbol, Appalachia Proud: Mountains of Potential, similar to the Kentucky Proud program.
“The University of Pikeville is going to produce ginseng,” Comer said.
“You look at the landscape out there and it is obviously mountains and rough terrain. What can you grow or produce in that region? Ginseng grows in the woods, and all that is harvested in Kentucky ends up in Japan or Asia to be processed. We want to develop a processing industry in Kentucky. That’s a unique, outside-the-box partnership between the university and outside industry.”