Lexington, KY – “I’m a farmer, and that’s why I’m here tonight,” said State Senator Joey Pendleton, Hopkinsville-D, speaking at the Lexington Public Library after a showing of a documentary film, The Hemp Revolution, sponsored by the Good Foods Market and Cafe. Pendleton has represented Kentucky’s Third District since 1992, and that district’s economy is largely based on agriculture.
“The time is right for industrial hemp in Kentucky,” he said. On stage with him was Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Moffet, who has made industrial hemp a major issue in his campaign. Craig Lee, appointed in 2001 to the Industrial Hemp Commission, sat between them.
Pendleton said that, just a few years ago, he would have never thought he would be advocating for the reintroduction of hemp into Kentucky agriculture. Education about hemp, he added, is key. He now sees the potential for a $400 million to $500 million hemp industry in the state.
“I’m for the agriculture end of it, for industry and putting people to work,” he said. “The ethanol plant in Hopkinsville told me that within a week they could be making ethanol from hemp, and we’ve got harvesting equipment in place.”
Hemp, he said, would provide at least twice the amount of ethanol per acre when compared with corn, and it could produce two crops in a year’s cycle. Hemp also has the advantages of growing pesticide-free and leaving a more enriched soil.
Holding up a postcard that had side-by-side images of an industrial hemp fiber crop and a crop of marijuana, Pendleton said, “Anyone who can’t tell the difference between the two doesn’t belong in law enforcement.”
Industrial hemp is grown in tight rows to maximize stalk yield, the part of the plant that is rich in the long bast fibers that line the outside of the stalk and is rich in cellulose in the stalk’s inner hurd. Marijuana or seed crops are grown with more space between them to favor the flourishing of leaves and flowers. Different strains of the same plant, cannabis sativa l., have varying amounts of THC, the psychoactive component. Industrial hemp, whether grown for industry or seed stock, has less than one percent THC, making it a non-drug crop. Marijuana strains of the plant can range from five to 20 percent THC content.
Pendleton has pre-filed a bill containing a plan for the reintroduction of hemp into Kentucky agriculture, should the federal government end its prohibition of industrial hemp cultivation.
“It’s actually the same bill that we had last year,” he said. That bill was titled “An Act Relating to Industrial Hemp,” and it never made it to the floor.
“I think there’s a lot of support there (for industrial hemp) from other members of the Senate,” said Pendleton. “I think if they ever had the opportunity to have a committee hearing and get it to the floor to vote, I think it’d be something we could pass in the Senate.”
State Senator Jimmy Higdon was in the audience that night at the library.
“Kentucky farmers are suffering and looking for alternative crops to tobacco,” Higdon said. “We understand it (hemp) has great potential, but it really needs to be researched.”
He would like to see the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University conduct research on industrial hemp. He would also like to see the Industrial Hemp Commission, which was formed in 2001, funded and activated.
According to Pendleton, many law enforcement officials in the state, particularly in Western Kentucky, see the potential of industrial hemp farming and would be willing to deal with any enforcement issues. He said he has toured farming communities, speaking about industrial hemp, and was accompanied by a Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force officer, who also voiced support for industrial hemp. In eastern Kentucky, Pendleton said, the view is much dimmer on industrial hemp, and he thinks that’s because hemp may be seen as competition in the energy sector.
Pendleton also has the support of his constituency, which includes many farmers.
“All of them I’ve talked to are very much interested in it (industrial hemp),” said Pendleton. He cited Phillip Garnett, of the 20,000-acre Garnett Farms, the largest farming operation in the region, as having a keen interest in hemp.
Moffet, like Pendleton, never foresaw himself as an advocate for hemp.
“When I got into this race, I had no interest in advocating hemp,” he said. “I got asked about it and started doing research.”
He now sees it as a leadership issue for the governor’s office. “There are 31 countries that have legalized hemp,” he said. “We need to start the fight at the state level and start pushing back (against federal prohibition).”
Outside the library theater, a display table showed an array of products made with hemp: diesel biofuel, particle board, roof shingles, automobile parts, a plastic Frisbee, animal and fish feed, horse bedding, tennis shoes, hats, clothing, cosmetics, shampoo and conditioner, cereal, milk, ice cream, energy bars and nutritional oil.
“This piece right here is a $250,000 piece,” said Lee, holding a molded piece of hemp composite that represented a tremendous investment in research and development. He explained that it was an armrest designed to fit the door of a Chevrolet Luma, part of a project with hemp fibers in Canada in the late 1990s. This harkens back to Henry Ford using hemp and soy in automobiles. He had a vision for the wedding of agriculture and industry. The petrochemical industry came to displace that vision. Now concerns about peak oil, national security in regard to dependence on foreign oil, and the environmental impact of fossil fuels have made plant-based fibers, oils and cellulose more attractive. British car-maker Lotus has reinvigorated Ford’s vision with the Eco Elise, a sports car that uses hemp fiber in body panels, interior door panels and seats.
Kentucky-grown hemp once provided rope and sailcloth for ships and canvas for covered wagons. It was hemp paper upon which the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written. Pendleton’s bill will seek to return industrial hemp to Kentucky agriculture in the hope of reinvigorating farms, boosting the state’s economy and adding tax revenues to a strapped state government.