On May 5th 2015, James Comer, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA), held a press conference in a Lexington-based tobacco facility belonging to G.F. Vaughan, the last remaining tobacco processor in Kentucky.
His message was historic, his location symbolic: the first year of state-sanctioned industrial hemp farming under the Farm Bill succeeded, and the pilot program’s second year promises to be bigger and better, with the potential to elevate the entire state economy by restoring industrial hemp as the new “cash crop.”
Specifically, Commissioner Comer announced that KDA had approved 121 total participants, including seven universities, over 1,724 acres — a significant increase from last year. Additionally, millions of dollars have been invested in the state’s emerging industrial hemp production and processing industries.
The revival of industrial hemp means that Kentucky is creating a new agricultural commodity market, attracting an infusion of private-sector money from both inside and outside the state. By giving farmers, suppliers and processors the ability to hire additional staff and join the vanguard of the global resurgence in industrial hemp, Kentucky is empowering a return to its past agricultural leadership.
Kentucky is once again the American heartland of industrial hemp culture, a title it proudly held throughout history before Prohibition. But it wouldn’t have gotten here if not for the determination of its political leadership, starting with Comer himself. He was an early advocate of legalizing industrial hemp and worked with thought leaders from both parties to win support, joining with the rich Kentucky leadership of Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell, Thomas Massie, Paul Hornback, John Yarmouth, and Andy Barr to move to action.
In 2014, these pilot programs were legitimized under the Farm Bill (aka The Agricultural Act of 2014). Given the tough economic times, and particularly the economic plight of farmers, Comer’s Kentucky Proud strategy for a sustainable crop made perfect sense. But politics intervened, and as the first 250-pound shipment of certified industrial hemp seeds from Italy arrived at the Louisville airport, the DEA seized them as if they were contraband, in direct violation of the new law.
Where others may have cowered before the federal authorities, Comer filed suit against the DEA, asserting his state’s rights to carry out its industrial hemp program. Realizing that they overstepped their bounds, the DEA released the seeds in time for planting: Jamie Comer’s quick action saved the 2014 industrial hemp growing season, setting the stage for the dramatic increase in the 2015 planting season.
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