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Why Kentucky farmers are quitting tobacco and turning to an unlikely new crop

October 17, 2015 at 3:46 PM EST
A Farm Bill passed by Congress last year included an amendment granting states and universities the right to research hemp. Several states have since started research projects, but Kentucky is at the forefront, experimenting with creating a new industry around this plant. NewsHour's Christopher Booker reports.
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BRIAN FURNISH, KENTUCKY FARMER: Basically, a barn like this, with 20 guys, we can load this barn in two days.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Brian Furnish and his family have been growing tobacco for eight generations. They started in Virginia nearly two hundred years ago then migrated in the mid-1800s to the rolling hills of central Kentucky.

BRIAN FURNISH: I guess it’s a labor of love, one we have always done. We grew up in it and I guess we always will as long as it’s available to us.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But life as a Kentucky tobacco farmer is not as lucrative as it once was. Thanks to anti-smoking campaigns and high taxes on cigarettes, domestic demand is down and federal government price supports are gone.

The days when Kentucky’s crop grossed nearly a billion dollars a year are no more — forcing Brian, and farmers like him, to imagine a future without tobacco and diversify their farms.

His move to cattle paid off with rising beef prices, but Brian’s most recent bet is cannabis sativa, also known as hemp.

But there is a catch. To the federal government, hemp is just as illegal as marijuana.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is determined to change that.

JAMES COMER; KENTUCKY AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER: There is no reason why industrial hemp should’ve been outlawed in the United States or in Kentucky.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Both marijuana and hemp are cannabis plants, and to the naked eye they look and smell the same.

The main difference comes down to the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol – commonly referred to as THC, the psychoactive chemical in the cannabis plant.

Hemp has a THC level below point-three percent, essentially making it impossible to get high on the plant, whereas marijuana has THC levels above point-three percent. Potency levels generally vary between one-percent and twenty-percent.

JAMES COMER: It’s a crop that today we make a lot of products from plastic and wood, tomorrow those products will be made from industrial hemp. The problem is that when people thought of hemp, they thought of marijuana.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In order to move forward, Comer and other leaders have tried to change the misperceptions. And this was a hard sell. Kentucky’s State Police Commissioner wasn’t convinced. He declined our request for an interview, but has voiced his skepticism on the local P-B-S program “Kentucky Tonight.”

RODNEY BREWER, KENTUCKY STATE POLICE COMMISSIONER: The main, number one concern that law enforcement has is that it is impossible for us with aerial surveillance, which is how we cut most of our marijuana, 441-thousand plants last year on the governor’s marijuana strike task force, you cannot distinguish that from the air or even on the ground when you’re in the field to the naked eye.

But the big issue that we have is what is to prevent an unscrupulous farmer, maybe with or without his knowledge, from someone going in and planting ten, fifteen, twenty marijuana plants in the center of this one acre, ten acre tract?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The appeal of hemp is based on the productivity and diverse usage of the plant. The fiber can be used in rope, clothing, building materials, even car dashboards. Whole Foods sells a variety of products derived from hemp seeds – from hemp granola bars to hemp milk.

And the Body Shop, offers everything from hemp hand cream to hemp soap-on-a-rope. But all of the hemp fiber, seeds, or oils in these products comes from hemp grown outside of the United States to the tune of about 500-million-dollars a year.

After Comer took office in 2012, he pushed the state legislature to pass a law that set the basic framework for a Kentucky hemp industry. But getting hemp seeds in the ground required the federal government. So, the state turned to one of the most powerful politicians in Washington for help — the senior U.S senator from Kentucky and current Republican Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.

When the 2014 Farm Bill arrived in the Senate, it included a House of Representatives amendment granting colleges and universities the right to grow and study industrial

hemp. In the Senate version of the bill, Senator McConnell inserted a key measure extending the rights to state agriculture departments, clearing the way for states to license individual farmers to grow hemp.

After it passed, McConnell issued a statement applauding what this might mean for Kentucky, saying: “This is an important victory for Kentucky’s farmers, and I was pleased to be able to secure this language on behalf of our state…we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers.”

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Brian Furnish was one of the first Kentucky farmers approved last year to grow hemp, but it wasn’t that simple. Because the state lacked a controlled substance import permit, the Drug Enforcement Administration held up the first batch of seed for weeks.

BRIAN FURNISH: They seized one of our shipments and we had to go to court in Louisville to get the seed released and to lay out the framework of what we would have to do to get our licensing permits. Last year was a really slow process. This season it wasn’t so bad. They only delayed us about a maybe ten days.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Even with seeds in hand, Furnish was monitored from planting to harvest.

BRIAN FURNISH: Everything we do has to be reported. We have to go through a criminal background check. All of our fields have to be GPS when they’re planted. Samples will be taken of every field to test for the THC levels.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While Furnish and the state view this effort as a way to push farms into a post-tobacco future, the move to hemp is actually a return to a plant that once dominated the Kentucky landscape.

“HEMP FOR VICTORY” GOVERNMENT FILM, 1942: With Philippine and East Indian sources of hemp now in the hands of the Japanese American hemp must meet the needs of our army and navy, as well as our industries.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: At the height of World War Two, the U.S. government temporarily allowed and encouraged farmers to grow hemp for the war effort.

“HEMP FOR VICTORY” GOVERNMENT FILM, 1942: Rope for marine rigging and towing, thread for shoes for millions of American soldiers, and parachute webbing for our paratroopers.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: At the war’s end, came the end of Kentucky hemp. Despite the state’s history, there are essentially no farmers remaining that have direct experience with the plant.

Unlike the tobacco farming techniques that have been passed down through the generations, Kentucky farmers that are looking to experiment with hemp are mostly relying on the techniques developed in other countries.

DAVID WILLIAMS, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY: The uses of hemp at that period of history are very, very different than why we would grow hemp today.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Following the passage of the last year’s farm bill — professor David Williams helped launch the University of Kentucky’s hemp research program.

DAVID WILLIAMS: If you consider a plant that has three potential harvestable components there aren’t too many other crops that we’re growing in Kentucky that can serve that role. We have experiments for all three this year.

The one behind me is a natural fiber trial. We have two trials investigating grain production, growing hemp just for the seed for food purposes, animal or human food. And then we also have some trials investigating the production of cannabinoids.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: It is these cannabinoids — the biochemicals in hemp that some believe have potential medicinal applications — from reducing seizures to treating cancer.

The state feels, this is where most potential profit lies, but James Comer says, this is where they are facing another challenge from a federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration.

JAMES COMER: Some of our most profitable pilot projects now are focused on the cannabidiol from a pharmaceutical standpoint. If you look at what their projected profit margin will be per acre, it’s going to be significantly greater than tobacco ever was.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But any medicinal application would require the approval of the FDA, the agency responsible for the regulation of medication and dietary supplements.

In an excerpt from a statement to the NewsHour, the FDA said: “It is important and appropriate to use the same scientific standards in the development and assessment of potential therapeutic uses of cannabidiol as with any unapproved drug that the agency reviews.”

TREY RIDDLE, SUNSTRAND CEO: With all new industries, there’s an element of risk.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Trey riddle hopes to cash in on hemp. He relocated his materials company, SunStrand, from Montana.

TREY RIDDLE: My company right now is prepared to chart a path into the unknown and invest time, money, resources into developing capabilities to take the material to the next step. We do feel that there is a large market potential for hemp, and so are willing to make those investments.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: What if there’s a change in policy and they basically say, “okay no more, no more hemp?”

TREY RIDDLE: I’m not too worried about that myself. I don’t really see the laws going backwards. I think it would be a hard sell, because we are making a lot of progress.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Particularly thinking about your own trajectory, you know, Brian Furnish, whose farm we visited, he has a hundred acres. I mean, if you’re talking about scaling up, you’re going to need a lot more hemp.

TREY RIDDLE: That’s right. I mean we expect to need five thousand acres of hemp in the not-so-distant future for just a portion of what we think is a major industry.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: A potential major industry for Kentucky and dozen or so other states looking at alternatives to tobacco. But even with the current framework in place, one that will require a bit more than investment and development to move forward in the way some are hoping.

JAMES COMER: Once they have confidence that the federal government is going to leave them alone there, there’s going to be a huge investment made all over the state and I can see the interest from, from Wall Street.

I can see the interest from, from hedge funds and, and investors all across the United States that want to come to Kentucky and, and get in on the ground floor of an industry that they know ten years down the road is, is going to be huge.

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