SHEPHERDSVILLE - In a last-ditch effort to gather public support for legislation that would allow Kentucky farmers to grow hemp for a variety of products, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer recently took his case to the people of Bullitt County.
Culminating an eight month tour of the commonwealth, Comer joined industrial hemp experts and local officials to discuss Senate Bill 50 during a public town hall meeting held by County Judge Melanie Roberts at the Bullitt County Extension Office on Thursday.
Sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who represents Bullitt, Shelby and Spencer counties in the Kentucky General Assembly, SB 50 does not legalize industrial hemp in Kentucky, Comer said.
Instead the bill establishes a regulatory framework with conditions and procedures for the licensing of industrial hemp growers by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Comer praised Hornback for sponsoring the legislation, which passed the Kentucky Senate 31-6.
The commissioner said Democratic and Republican senators alike voted in favor of the bill, a rare example of bipartisanship in Frankfort.
By his figures, Comer said the bill would also pass the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin.
That is if House Speaker Greg Stumbo will allow a floor vote, Comer said.
Having passed the Senate, SB 50 will have to make it out of the House Agriculture Committee before it can go to the floor for a vote.
As it stands, industrial hemp is strictly regulated under federal law because the U.S. government doesn’t distinguish the plant from marijuana, though the two are genetically different.
While marijuana typically contains anywhere between 3 and 15 percent Tetrachydroncannabinol or THC, the drug that produces a high when it’s inhaled or ingested, hemp contains less than 1 percent THC by weight, which is below below psychoactive levels.
In the event the bill is passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Steve Beshear, Comer said state officials and industrial hemp advocates are poised to go to Washington to request the federal government grant a waiver for Kentucky farmers to grow hemp.
Comer said even Kentucky’s congressional delegation supported Kentucky serving as a “pilot project” for industrial hemp.
“There is an impressive coalition trying to make this a reality,” Comer said.
The commissioner said the statewide effort has captured the attention of not only the national media, but of international corporations, which he said were ready to contract with Kentucky farmers for hemp.
Comer said those opposed to SB 50, namely state law enforcement officials, have said it would be impossible to regulate industrial hemp.
But Comer argued that because the department of agriculture was the largest regulatory agency in Kentucky, monitoring everything from the quality and quantity of gasoline sold to consumers, to farm, commercial and residential pesticides, to amusement rides, to millions of commercial scales and price scanners, there would be no need for law enforcement to inspect or regulate.
“We can do it more efficiently and much cheaper than they can,” he said.
And while many oppose industrial hemp because of its relationship with the marijuana plant, Comer pointed out that it’s impossible to get a high off hemp.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation,” he said.
Comer said he hated marijuana, however hemp is not marijuana.
“I believe it’s an agricultural crop, just like corn or soy bean,” he said.
The facts of hemp
Industrial Hemp expert Katie Moyer of the Hopkinsville-based Kentucky Hemp Coalition said hemp and Kentucky go hand in hand, explaining that the history of Kentucky’s native seed spans the history of the commonwealth itself.
Industrial hemp was widely grown in the United States from the colonial period until the mid-1800s and in that time Kentucky established itself as the leading producer of hemp, Moyer said.
The reason for hemp’s popularity was the plant’s versatility.
Moyer said the hemp plant has three components: the seed, the oil extracted from the seed and the stalk.
While most are familiar with raw hemp oil as a natural skin treatment in its raw form or in manufactured lotions and cosmetics, Moyer said hemp oil can also be used in cooking.
What’s more, hemp oil contains more essential fats and proteins than any other plant known to man, Moyer said.
The “seed cake,” which is left when the oil is extracted from seed, is also rich in essential nutrients.
And though it can be consumed by humans and animals alike once it’s processed, Moyer said seed cake is a great a low-cost supplement to animal feed in its raw form.
Another product derived from the hemp seed is “hemp milk,” which is 100 percent plant-based and is often used as a substitute for dairy, like almond or soy milk.
Moyer said hemp oil has proven an efficient, environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel as well.
As a matter of fact, hemp oil was commonly used to fuel fighter planes in World War II because it would not freeze at high altitudes, unlike petrol oils, which are in limited supply and harmful to the environment.
After discussing the seed and oil, Moyer passed around a hemp stalk.
Though the fibers of the hemp stalk have been used to make things like rope, clothing and building material for thousands of years, Moyer said the part of the stalk known as “hemp hurds” have recently proven particularly useful.
Untreated and unrefined, hemp hurds can be used in a wide varity of beneficial products, from cement and insulation to 100 percent tree-free paper.
The second use of hemp hurds is in the form of pulp. Hemp pulp can be used to make biodegradable plastics, plastics that are easily broken down, Moyer said.
As she explained, hemp hurds are the left-over fragments of the stalk once all the fibers have been removed.
Because hemp fibers and hurds are much cheaper than other raw materials, companies like Corvette and Mercedes use them to manufacture interior components for cars, trucks and SUVs.
“It may sound ridiculous, but we can actually grow our cars out of the earth in Kentucky,” she said.
Passing around a piece of plywood, a frisbee, a car door and a roof shingle, all made from hemp, Moyer explained that more than more than 24,000 products could be made from hemp.
And those are just the products that are known.
Why is hemp an ideal raw material?
Because it’s natural, and more importantly, it’s strong, Moyer said.
“Hemp fibers are the strongest plant fibers known to man,” she said. “And unlike most commonly used materials, hemp actually gets stronger as it ages because it petrifies over time.”
In addition to its countless industrial uses, hemp is also environmentally and agriculturally beneficial, Moyer said.
Moyer said hemp actually cleanses soil, which has proven ideal for rotating nutrient absorbing crops like corn and tobacco, adding that there are reports of farmers growing the same crops on in the same fields for years and because they incorporated hemp into their crops, they provided greater yields year after year.
Studies have shown that the hemp plant efficiently absorbs carbon dioxide, a primary contributor to the greenhouse effect, which scientists believe is behind global warming.
Additionally, the hemp plant serves as a natural pesticide and it requires absolutely no chemicals to thrive in Kentucky, Moyer said.
“The possibilities are limitless,” she said.
In closing, Moyer wished to point out that the Kentucky Hemp Coalition’s efforts, from community education to research, was all made possible through private donations without a dime of tax payer dollars.