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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hemp to Replace Tobacco Crop?

Air Date: Week of

Hemp, once a mainstay in Kentucky's economy, is now outlawed. But now hemp is getting a second look from farmers in Kentucky, who are seeking some alternatives to growing tobacco. John Gregory has our report.


CURWOOD: As the proposed multi-billion dollar tobacco industry settlement lurches toward resolution, tobacco farmers worry about their future. So far there's been no cash compensation proposed for farmers who lose tobacco income. Tobacco has been the primary money maker for many Southern farmers for generations, but today diversification is the buzzword. Fruits and vegetables, specialty livestock, even aquaculture are in the mix now. And some tobacco farmers in Kentucky are looking to the past for a new cash crop. John Gregory has our report.

(Traffic sounds)

GREGORY: US Highway 60 near Lexington, Kentucky, cuts through some of the state's most scenic farm land. Farmer and business man Andy Graves looks across the road to a field that his family's owned for some 200 years. He sees the corn that's growing there now and recalls a crop from decades ago.

GRAVES: When dad's father was farming big, my grandfather was farming big, that's where they raised a lot of hemp is right over there, the last big years that they were growing it. Probably there in that field.

GREGORY: For hundreds of years, fibers from hemp stalks made strong paper, fabrics, and rope. The tall slender plant was Kentucky's first cash crop, and for many years the state led the nation in hemp production. But by the 1900s, hemp farming in the United States began a slow decline. Trees became the preferred source of paper, and hemp couldn't compete against imported natural fibers or emerging synthetic ones. Plus, the Internal Revenue Service began to tax hemp production in 1937. The plant did see a resurgence in the 1940s when the government licensed farmers and even encouraged 4H clubs to produce hemp for rope and parachute netting for the war effort. Kentucky hemp farmers are featured in a Department of Agriculture training film from the period.

(Music in the background: "My Old Kentucky Home." Man's voice over: "Hemp for fiber is ready to harvest when the pollen is shedding and the leaves are falling. In Kentucky hemp harvest comes in August. Here, the old standby has been the self-raked reaper, which has been used for a generation or more.")

GREGORY: The hemp revival was brief, though, and the last commercial crop was grown in Wisconsin in the mid-1950s. Now, with tobacco in decline, farmer Andy Graves thinks it's time to bring hemp back.

GRAVES: It might be a crop that can put some food on the table and maybe help pay the mortgage on the farm and buy some Christmas presents. Because that's what's tobacco's doing.

GREGORY: Mr. Graves is the president of the Kentucky Help Growers, a wartime cooperative that he and several other farmers recently revived. They say hemp is easy to grow and is environmentally sound. The plant requires few pesticides, and its deep roots prevent soil erosion. Using hemp to make paper reduces pressure on forests. The plant can also reduce dependence on petroleum. The woody inner portion of the stalk is an ingredient in biodegradable plastics. And hemp seed oil can be used for fuel, paint, and varnishes. Again, Andy Graves.

GRAVES: People want to be more environmentally sensitive and environmentally correct, and hemp, because of its amazing ability to be grown in so many parts of the United States, it can be the crop that can do that for us.

GREGORY: From Hawaii to Vermont, farmers and activists in 12 states want to grow hemp. But they just can't launch into production because growing hemp is against the law.

(Policeman's voice on walkie talkie:"Okay, 509, you can see us now, dope center right over here...")

GREGORY: Kentucky remains a national leader in hemp production, but these days it's called marijuana. The drug is the state's number one illegal cash crop.

(Voices on walkie talkies continue. A motor starts up.)

GREGORY: From June through September, the Kentucky State Police use helicopters to locate patches of marijuana planted along the wooded hillsides of central and eastern Kentucky. Ground crews in military humvees then move in and cut the plants. In 1996, the eradication force destroyed more than half a million plants and arrested some 1,200 growers. State police lieutenant Gerry Melton spots a cluster of marijuana plants growing behind a garage in rural Marion County.

MELTON: It's, you know, the proverbial needle in the haystack. You know, you've got the whole state of Kentucky to hide it in and that's the hard part of it is just being able to locate it.

(Cutting sounds)

GREGORY: Police photograph the marijuana as evidence, then cut the 274 plants with machetes.

(Cutting sounds)

GREGORY: Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis sativa, and both contain the psychoactive chemical THC. Plants containing less than one percent of THC are generally called hemp. Marijuana, on the other hand, is at least 10 times more potent. The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies the cannabis sativa plant as a narcotic regardless of its THC content.

CHERRY: Now we in the Justice Cabinet in the Administration are certainly very supportive of Kentucky's farmers.

GREGORY: Dan Cherry is the Secretary of the Kentucky Justice Cabinet.

CHERRY: It's very important that we find the right crops for our farmers. Crops which will meet their needs but not compromise our drug control strategies.

GREGORY: Hemp and marijuana look alike, so Cherry and law enforcement officials worry that unscrupulous growers would hide rows of marijuana in with their fiber hemp plants. They also fear monitoring hemp production would distract police from more important drug control efforts. And State Police Commissioner Gary Rose recently told Kentucky legislators that promoting hemp sends a dangerous message to children.

ROSE: The proposed legalization of hemp is in my opinion nothing more than an attempt to legalize the growing of marijuana within this state.

GREGORY: Hemp supporters, including established agricultural groups like the Community Farm Alliance and the Kentucky Farm Bureau say they have absolutely no interest in legalizing marijuana. Furthermore, they want police and the US Department of Agriculture to develop ways to license and monitor hemp production. And activist Andy Graves says hemp operations in Germany, France, England, and beginning next year in Canada, can serve as models for US production.

GRAVES: The head of the Mounties says well it's real easy. We know that the field and the farmers are licensed to grow this. We know where the hemp should be. And anybody that hadn't got hemp in that spot, we know that they're probably growing it illegal.

METCALFE: I think it's an issue whose time has come.

GREGORY: Republican State Senator Barry Metcalfe is drafting legislation for the 1998 session of the Kentucky General Assembly that calls for the University of Kentucky to develop a hemp plant with no narcotic properties, and to explore the economic potential of hemp.

METCALFE: And part of the research is to develop secondary, value-added markets for the hemp. Not just to grow it, but also to have a place to weave clothing, to develop strands for paper.

GREGORY: If Kentucky or other states are able to pass laws allowing hemp to be planted, growers would still need a permit from the DEA. And the agency has never granted such a license. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Louisville, Kentucky.



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