By Daniel Isenstein.
In 1775 Archibald McNeill officially registered the Bluegrass regions first crop near the community of Danville in the then county of Kentucky in the Colony of Virginia. According to the historical marker that sits in front of the Boyle County Courthouse, Archibald Cox planted seed he brought with him to Kentucky near Clark’s Run Creek. That crop was hemp.
From McNeill’s first seeds in 1775 until 1915 hemp was Kentucky’s largest cash crop. From 1840-1860 Kentucky lead the nation in hemp production. During this time Kentucky hemp was used in products ranging from cordage and rigging for ships, canvas for covered wagons, sails and textile products of all kinds. Hemp processing is incredibly labor intensive. Historical records indicate that numerous factories and textile mills operated in the region creating employment opportunities outside of agriculture.
Much of this activity died out after 1915. In 1889, as a result of the Spanish American War, the United States acquired the Philippine Islands. These newly acquired territories offered a similar product, jute or “manila hemp”. In addition, the Philippines also offered cheaper labor and so began the end of the great Kentucky hemp industry.
The Manila hemp (jute) and the reefer madness era almost killed the Kentucky hemp industry. Were it not for World War II, hemp production in Kentucky would be a distant memory. The Japanese seized the Philippine Islands early in the war cutting off the supply of cordage for the US and our allies. The United States government countered with an agricultural program entitled “Hemp for Victory”. Basically the government retrained and contracted farmers to raise hemp and for factories to be established to process it into the materials of war.
Kentucky River Mills in the state capital of Frankfort, began making hemp yarn for carpet backing in 1878. In 1941 it was awarded a significant navy contract for cordage. The mill was the last hemp processing facility in the state, closing in 1952.
The 2014 Federal Farm Bill which allowed states to conduct Industrial Hemp research empowered Kentucky to start the process of reintroducing the crop that was once central to the state economy. Of course things have not gone smoothly. In 2014 the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized the first shipment of 250 LBS of industrial hempseed ordered by the state from Italy. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture had to take the DEA to court to have the seed released. As a result the crop was late in planting and yielded only 33.5 acres. Additionally, much of the research data was skewed. 2015 was not much better with yield approximately double that of 2014. (Newsweek, 2015)
2016 has been a much more productive year for hemp research in Kentucky. Farmers and university researchers were able to get their seed into the ground in May/June. The research projects at the university level will likely take several years to generate enough data points to develop peer review level work. And some of this research is being contracted by private industry. That is the nature of academic research.
Privately companies like United Hemp Industries are conducting their own Design of Experiments (DOE) on a much smaller scale. Individual farmers are experimenting with different strains of hemp from Europe, Asia and Canada to see what is best suited to our climate. Additional experiments are conducted to determine ideal depth and density of seed dispersion during planting. The goal is to get a crop in the ground that responds favorably to the climate, and is planted such that it naturally blocks out weeds.
On September 1, 2016 I got to participate in making a piece of Kentucky history when I helped to bring in the first of UHI’s 2016 test plots. Helping Kirstin Bohnert and Alyssa Erickson of UHI were about ½ dozen hemp activists and friends. We gathered at the UHI test plots located at the Mulberry Orchard on Grajdzik Farm just outside of Shelbyville, KY. Those interested can arrange tours, click here.
It was a perfect day with temperatures never getting above 80. The work began a little later than most farm work as most of us were volunteering our time. I arrived after the first row had been cut and bundled and was being loaded onto the back of a trailer. We proceeded to take down two plots of test hemp and it was a magnificent experience.
The hemp we harvested is for research purposes. This material is going to be measured and analyzed to determine which strains, seed planting specifics and fertilizer packages produced the best looking and most consistent hemp. As important as that information, there is also a need to generate information about harvesting techniques and equipment. It has been 70 years since this plant was last grown in Kentucky. Harvesting equipment is not “in stock” at the local farm implement dealership. We are resurrecting an industry from the dead.
The hemp industry will continue to grow, although it will take time to begin to fully tap its potential. One thing I have observed is the industry is attracting interest from a very diverse cross section of professionals. These people recognize the potential of this emerging industry. They are bringing a level of creativity and energy that is sure to spark the type of innovation required to take this beyond the research phase.
I look forward to being a part of it.
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