By Bill Robinson
MADISON COUNTY —
Hemp, perhaps Kentucky’s biggest cash crop in the 19th century, could be commercially viable for the state’s farmers in the 21th century.
That’s the opinion of state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer who visited Richmond on Friday morning during a swing through central Kentucky to promote sales of the license plates that generate funds for the Kentucky Proud, 4-H and FFA programs.
He mingled and posed for pictures with local 4-H and FFA members at the Madison County Courthouse and conferred with County Clerk Kenny Barger, whose office sells the license plates.
Unlike most other Kentucky license plates, those that promote the agriculture programs renew only in the month of March, Comer said. That’s why he is traveling the state this month urging motorists to voluntarily donate $10 to the ag programs when they renew them.
The money is split evenly between the three programs, he said.
“FFA and 4-H helped make me the person I am today,” said Comer, a former state president of Kentucky FFA. “They taught me valuable life lessons while enabling me to make friends from all over the commonwealth. The voluntary $10 donations will help 4-H and FFA continue their good work for Kentucky’s youth. They also will help the Kentucky Department of Agriculture maintain the Kentucky Proud farm marketing program.”
Although that was the purpose of his visit, Comer was prepared to answer a journalist’s questions about his support for legalizing the growing of hemp.
Legalizing hemp was once supported mainly by those who also advocated for legalizing the crop’s close relative, marijuana. In recent years, however, the growing of what is sometimes called industrial hemp has gained the support of such mainstream organizations as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the political establishment, including Kentucky's two U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, both Republicans, as well as Comer, also a Republican, and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Third District.
Already, one Kentucky firm, Caudill Seed of Louisville, manufactures soap from hemp seeds grown in Canada, Comer said. Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown also is interested in using a plastic made from hemp stems as it already does in Europe, the agriculture commissioner said.
However, both the state and federal governments would first have to lift their bans on growing the leafy, fibrous plant. A state historical marker on Lancaster Road indicates that hemp was grown legally in Madison County during World War II when Manila fibers from the Philippines were unavailable and synthetic fibers were in their infancy.
Under Comer’s proposal, growing or buying hemp would require a state license.
“I would not license a farmer to grow hemp unless there was a buyer already licensed who had agreed to purchase it,” the agriculture commissioner said.
Licensing also would allow law enforcement to keep track of growers, he said.
Even if growers of illegal marijuana secretly planted their product in a legal farmer’s field, Comer said, Mother Nature would thwart them.
Hemp and marijuana are subsets of the same species, according to Comer, and if they grow near each other, their blooms will cross pollinate, reducing levels of the chemical known as THC in mature marijuana. The decreased potency of the cross-pollinated plants would render them useless to recreational users and traffickers, he said.
That has been the case in Canada, where hemp is grown legally and its fibers and seeds are imported to the United States.
Despite the increasing mainstream support for growing industrial hemp, the Kentucky State Police remain opposed to its legalization.
KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer said last week the growing of hemp would frustrate his agency’s efforts to eradicate the plant’s illegal cousin.
Bill Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or at 624-6690.