Sen. Rand Paul, left, and Rep. Richard Heath listen to hemp presentation. Hemp food additive in bag manufactured in Canada can be sold but not produced in US.
Hemp is quickly becoming the Holy Grail for Western Kentucky farmers. The promise of a new crop that can be animal feed, people food, medicine, fabric, and a building material is a siren call for agriculture.
Senator Rand Paul spent some time in Calloway County recently listening to an extended elevator pitch at the Scott Lowe Farm. The farm grows over 700 acres of hemp and has capacity for 200 more acres.
Senator Paul and State Representative Richard Heath (Graves, McCracken) listened to farmer Joseph Kelly, shown below at left, discuss the potential for hemp as a food source. Kelly had a sample of hemp powder to share, pointing out that the powder cannot be produced in the US. It is grown and processed in Canada and is sold legally in America. That's one frustration among many. The plant offers a 10:1 advantage in protein over soybeans, but laws prevent selling hemp as an animal feed.
Other farmers expressed the hope that hemp can replace burley tobacco, which is grown in smaller quantities in Central and Eastern Kentucky. They said the cultivation of the products are similar. Western Kentucky farmers grow dark fired tobacco which continues to bring better prices than burley.
The main obstacle for farmers is the continued classification of hemp as a Schedule 1 narcotic. That puts it in the same class as opioids, cocaine and heroin. Farmers who grow hemp do so with close scrutiny by law enforcement.
First District Congressman James Comer introduced legislation to pull industrial hemp out of the drug classification. Paul admitted he has not closely followed the bill, but contended that "these bills get attached to a bigger piece of legislation." The Farm Bill which is on a five year rotation to get renewed is a candidate for attachment of the Comer bill.
Hemp is touted as an easy to grow crop which can have two harvests in one crop year. Kelly said that he was surprised when it became obvious that the farm could put in a second planting of hemp with only the application of nitrogen.
Presently, weeds remain a big problem for hemp production. A herbicide specific to the crop is needed but it will take a major manufacturer to develop a product. Canada, which has been producing hemp for many years, has a product. Paul was told that the product was tested by Kentucky researchers and not found to be a sufficient weed preventer.
Jeff Stewart, a representative of Hutson's Farm Equipment said that harvesting hemp requires moderately different attachments to their combines. A separator developed in the Netherlands divides the seed where the oil is located from the stalk. The attachment is not yet available in the US.
Kelly told the Senator that his company is "on its own" when it comes to crop loss. Because of its status, it is not available for federal crop insurance. He said if he has an equipment loss in a hemp field, some insurance companies wont cover the loss. Farm Bureau is the only insurance company that will. Paul was asked to try to get hemp covered by federal crop insurance.
At a short press conference after the presentation, Senator Paul said he saw no reason for the federal government to control "natural things that grow in the ground."
Farmers in other Western Kentucky counties have also begun to grow small crops of hemp under the study program banner. Other farmers are expressing interest in adding the crop to their rotation.
Agriculture in Western Kentucky has been battered by trade wars, bouncing prices and bumper crops. Hemp may be the crop that has all they are looking for.
But first it has to be legal.