At Kentuckians' Urging, Farm Group Backs Hemp Research
By JOE WARD
Responding to an effort led primarily by Kentucky farmers, the country's largest farming organization this week endorsed research that could lead to the re-legalization of hemp as an American farm crop.
Andrew Graves, a spokesman for the Lexington-based Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association and a Fayette County Farm Bureau officer, said the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting in Reno, Nevada, passed a resolution calling for research into the viability and economic potential of industrial hemp in the United States.
The resolution calls for the planting of American test plots using modern agricultural techniques.
Hemp, sometimes described as "marijuana's misunderstood cousin," is grown in Europe and Asia and even Canada, as a source of fiber for twine, fabric and paper. It was a major crop in the United States before Congress outlawed it in anti-drug legislation.
Graves said that industrial hemp comes from the same plant species as marijuana but that marijuana is a strain developed in Mexico for its drug qualities. Farmers seek to raise a variety developed in temperate climates for fiber, and which contains only minute amounts of tetrahydrocannabinols -THC- marijuana's psychoactive ingredients.
He said the most immediate effect of Thursday's endorsement by the 4.5 million-member farm bureau is likely to be passage by the Colorado legislature of a bill that would permit test patches of industrial hemp there.Graves said he personally introduced the resolution approved by the Farm Bureau.
Colorado will consider a bill next week similar to one that lost by only one vote a year ago, he said. "The support of the American Farm Bureau could put it through."
He had gone to the Reno meeting with endorsements by the Kentucky and Colorado Farm Bureau state meetings but little real hope of getting national support. But he said the convention listened to him for five minutes and voted unanimously for the resolution. "They didn't even ask any questions."
The work of a Kentucky task force appointed by then-Gov. Brereton Jones in 1994 to look into the viability of hemp came to a mildly controversial end last year, with a conclusion that it amounted to an economic dead end. Some members of the task force grumbled that the task force's study was superficial, though.
Graves said his organization will get a copy of the proposed Colorado legislation with an eye toward adapting it for a Kentucky proposal. He said farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin also have hemp evaluation efforts under way.
Joe Hickey, director of the hemp co-op, said the organization also will approach Kentucky Agriculture Secretary Billy Ray Smith and the University of Kentucky about hemp research, which he said a number of paper companies would likely finance.
Hickey said the co-op has talked with Inland Container Corp., Weyerhauser Co., Masonite Corp. And International Paper Co., and all are enthusiastic about the properties hemp offers for paper production.
He said hemp, an annual crop, could help smooth out fluctuations in the paper industry that are generated by the 15-to-20 -year cycle for production of pulp trees.
Graves said hemp would be comparable to wheat in monetary yield per acre in the state. Hickey said co-op projections suggest it could bring about $375 an acre, assuming the $100 a ton price it brings in Europe, and a yield of about 6 tons an acre, which he said would be low for much Kentucky farmland.
Hickey said it would be good to act while there is still a chance of preserving a few pounds of seeds from Kentucky hemp, which once produced the best fiber in the world. Most of the seed was lost after the crop was outlawed, he said, and now the strain only exists where it comes up each year on its own on farms such (as) Graves's, where it was grown once as a crop.