By John L. Ross / Staff Writer
No, marijuana-growing operations won’t become part of the state’s agricultural economy.
Although Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer hopes the day will soon come when farmers in Kentucky could start producing an industrial version of marijuana’s botanical cousin, hemp.
Comer visited Whitley County Thursday at the county’s Fiscal Court Room to discuss future avenues for the state’s agriculture production and to get feedback from local farmers.
Industrial hemp, according to Comer, has many uses and could positively impact the state’s economy.
But producing that plant remains illegal on federal law books, largely because, according to Comer, its “unfortunate” similar appearance to marijuana.
Popular belief also holds that hemp equals marijuana, but Comer refutes that way of thinking. “(Hemp is) not legal because it looks like marijuana,” he said. “But it is not a drug…it’s totally different.”
He explained the hallucinogenic chemical highly present in marijuana is nearly untraceable in hemp. “You can’t smoke it,” he said.
He said prior to World War II hemp was widely grown in Kentucky, and even former Sen. Henry Clay (1777-1852) was known to produce hemp. “It yields a lot of profit,” Comer said. “It would help farmers, and (it would) create jobs.”
Ultimately he said it could lead to manufacturing jobs, such as paper production. “The Declaration of Independence was written on (paper made from hemp),” Comer said.
He said hemp products could replace many plastic products, which would help the environment by eliminating much of the plastic waste currently produced.
On Wednesday Comer was elected chair of the once-defunct Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which has now been revived after more than a decade. He said no tax dollars were used to reconvene the Commission. “(This) can be run on its own,” he said. “The government just needs to get out of the way.”
Comer said Sen. Rand Paul used $50,000 of political action committee funds, matched with another $50,000 from David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, to get this off the ground. According to Comer, Bronner’s company, based in California, is a $50 million industry. “We’re doing research and education trying to convince the legislation in Kentucky (to start hemp production),” he said.
Legislation is expected to be filed during the 2013 legislative session. “We’ll know (more) after the next general assembly,” he said.
According to Comer, research has been done across the globe, including in China and Canada, to determine the most effective way to produce hemp. In 2011, industrial hemp products accounted for more than $450 million in U.S. retail sales, according to The Hemp Industries Association. However, all raw hemp materials used to make these various products had to be imported. Bronner has spent thousands of dollars himself trying to import hemp materials here from Canada.
But if the state’s Industrial Hemp Commission is successful, Comer said everything is in place to start industrial hemp production in Kentucky. “I’m sticking my neck out for it in Frankfort,” he said.
On-site production of the hemp plant would be an easy conversion for many farmers, according to Comer. “(Farmers) don’t have to invest in new equipment (to grow this),” he said.
But there are other avenues which could be explored by Kentucky’s agriculture community.
One of those avenues could be biofuel production. “Kentucky could be the Saudi Arabia of the U.S.,” he said. “(We need) to wean our dependence on foreign oil.
“Kentucky is well-suited (to be) a bio-producing state.”
Comer said many possibilities exist in expanding Kentucky’s economy through agriculture. “I don’t believe we’ve scratched the surface on what we can do in Kentucky,” he said.
But helping the agricultural community requires the local farmer.
According to Comer, one tool the state uses to promote local farmers is the state’s Kentucky Proud program.
This program helps consumers find products made or grown locally. More than 40 Whitley County businesses or farms are listed as carrying Kentucky Proud products, more than 2 dozen in Laurel County, and nine in Knox County. Comer said a trend has emerged in the state’s metropolitan areas. “Consumers in urban areas want to support their local farmers,” he said.
Comer also spoke of other concerns facing the state economy, and how those concerns can hinder efforts of the state’s agricultural goals. He says the Environmental Protection Agency can cause problems. “That outfit, the EPA, it’s a bad deal…a bad deal,” said Comer.
One way the EPA has hindered agriculture efforts, according to Comer, concerns testing the water table for nitrogen and/or phosphorus deposits from fertilizer application. Results from testing help determine how much fertilizer could be legally applied. “(They’re) testing in the wrong places,” he said, explaining that the testing was performed in Oldham County, where agriculture production has waned.
“You can’t tell where the source is,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of agriculture left in Oldham County.
“(But) this is where they get their sample.”
The current administration in Washington has also hindered agricultural growth in the state, according to Comer. “I don’t agree (with President Barack Obama’s) energy policy,” he said, explaining that a Farm Bill had not been passed, one part of that being the Federal Farm Insurance Program.
That program, he said, helps when drought conditions or late freezes harm crops, both of which happened across Kentucky this growing season.
Comer believes agriculture can help lead the state to a more profitable future. Most products or commodities traded suffer trade deficits, he explained, which means more products get imported rather than exported.
But agriculture, Comer said, actually operates under a surplus, meaning more product gets exported than is imported. “That’s where (we have) the advantage on a global scale,” he said. “We can significantly expand agriculture in Kentucky.
“And Whitley County is a good agricultural county.”
He feels developing rural agriculture would begin an economic chain reaction. “When we look at how to grow the economy in the future, agriculture is number one on my list,” he said.