Kentucky’s great hemp hope

In industrial hemp, the state of Rand Paul and Wendell Berry sees a solution to its post-agrarian ills

Mike Lewis, a farmer who employs veterans on his farm, was recruited by Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer to join the state's hemp crusade.

MOUNT VERNON, Ky. — Mike Lewis doesn't want to talk about marijuana. He is an organic farmer, the son of a retired federal agent, and he follows the law. 

"If you're gonna talk about drugs, you're going to have to leave my property," he said to the group of entrepreneurs and activists who had traveled to central Kentucky to see his farm, one of the few legal, private hemp operations in the country. The threat sounded serious, and with it, Lewis had everyone's attention. "We're here today to talk about building an industry."

The most progressive cannabis program in the United States won't get anyone stoned. But while officials in Colorado and Washington state await the results (and reap millions in taxes) of their drug-legalization experiments, conservative Kentucky has launched an ambitious and industrious project devoted to the ancient, controversial plants. Marijuana remains illegal here, but with industrial hemp, a nonpsychoactive cannabis varietal with dozens of commercial uses, the state sees a different kind of salvation, an old-fashioned agrarian answer to a variety of 21st century American ills.

Seven university-affiliated grow sites in the state, spread from the Mississippi valley in the west to the Appalachian east, are researching hemp’s potentials. Eastern Kentucky University is studying biofuels. Manufacturers are talking up hemp-based car parts and hempcrete, a biodegradable construction material. Biochemical engineers in Louisville will test the plant's capacity to remediate the city's toxic dumps. In struggling Appalachia, where thousands of families were wiped out when the federal government ended its tobacco subsidies, small farmers are wondering whether hemp can fill an economic vacuum. Wherever Kentucky has a problem, it seems industrial hemp has an answer.

The initiative was launched by the state's agriculture commissioner, Republican James Comer, who ran for the office (an influential position in a predominately rural state), largely on his hemp visions.

"We thought he was crazy," recalled Holly Harris, who served as general counsel for the state GOP during Comer's 2011 campaign. "The party chatter was, 'This guy is crazy.'" But after Comer won that race — the only Kentucky Republican elected to statewide office that year — Harris was hired as his chief of staff and witnessed what she described as the most wild and memorable political experience of her career.

The conventional wisdom was that hemp was a political nonstarter, a fringe concern better fit for liberal states like Colorado or Washington, where marijuana prohibition was already being phased out. The conservative-led coalition that gathered around Comer's agenda destroyed those assumptions. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was instrumental, recruiting a delegation to testify in support of the state’s legalization measure; the group included Louisville Democrat John Yarmuth, libertarian conservative Thomas Massie and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey. When Paul spoke at the hearing on Senate Bill 50, he wore his favorite button-down hemp shirt. In Washington, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also of Kentucky, amended the 2014 Farm Bill to permit the plan under federal law. As the legal and political hurdles fell, Comer revived the long-moribund state Industrial Hemp Commission, a committee of stakeholders and experts responsible for getting the industry off the ground. Funding arrived from RandPAC (Paul's political action committee) on the right, and from a standard hippie culture staple, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. The two organizations provide the entirety of the commission’s budget.

Kentucky is not entirely alone in the legalization movement. Lawmakers in many rural states are frustrated by the fact that, while it's perfectly legal to sell hemp products made in other countries, federal law denies independent farmers the right to grown their own. In recent years, more than a dozen states have passed legislation that, to varying degrees, allows colleges, universities, and state agriculture agencies to research, grow and market the plant. Comer, however, took the additional step of licensing farmers like Lewis as state contractors, something no other state has done. In Colorado, farmers are allowed to grow the crop, but “it’s more like don’t ask don’t tell,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, the industries chief lobbying group. Kentucky, he said, “pushed the envelope and are letting farmers do commercial activity as research.”

It's been less than five months since Lewis planted his first seeds, and he said that he is currently in talks with more than a dozen manufacturing companies interested in processing hemp for a dizzying range of commercial and industrial applications, including health supplements, building insulation and bedding for Kentucky thoroughbreds. He said that a plastics company, which did not want to be named, is interested in processing hemp fibers into durable car paneling, a practice that European automakers have been using for years.

"We saw there is real opportunity," Lewis said. "We want to work with these people to create products, to drive dollars into the local economy." At this point, with so much energy and promise, Lewis "suffers from the oppression of opportunity." His biggest problem, he said, "is managing expectations." 

Vets in the farming life

A tractor cuts a small plot of hemp at a University of Kentucky a research plot near Lexington on Monday, Sept. 23, 2014.
Dylan Lovan / AP

Lewis wasn’t always interested in tangling with the politics of agricultural policy. His organic farm’s main outputs were sweet potatoes, peppers, flax, pasture-finished pork and myriad other crops that flourish in the warm Appalachian foothills. But before this life, in the early 90s, he served in the Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, where he witnessed hundreds of military funerals. He realized he had more to give back than just food, and he joined Homegrown by Heroes, a Kentucky Department of Agriculture program that supports veteran farmers and helps them market their products statewide.

"There is a real problem with the fact that the most independent and strongest people in our society don't know how to feed themselves," he said, citing the more than 1 million veterans and active service military personnel who live on food-stamp benefits. "So we got involved teaching veterans how to grow their own food, preserve it and save the seeds."

This impulse accelerated when Lewis' younger brother, a Special Forces sniper and medic named Fred-Curtis Lewis, came home from Afghanistan after taking a bullet to the head. As he watched his brother struggle with the brain injury, Mike Lewis noted the one place where the wounded soldier seemed most at ease. "When he was working with me on the farm, in the tomato garden, it was the first time I looked up since he got home and said, 'Oh, there's my little brother.’”

The brothers were galvanized to enlist more veterans in the farming life. Along with joining Homegrown by Heroes, they launched Growing Warriors, which provides hands-in-the-dirt training and technical advice to vets who want to start their own farms. This summer, on the hilly plot he renamed "Healing Ground," Lewis had six veterans working for him. Next year, he's hoping to hire a 12-man crew. Two new Growing Warriors chapters have started in North Carolina and West Virginia, with hundreds of vets now signed up to join the cause.

Lewis is a natural polymath, but when Comer initially approached him about hemp, he was skeptical. "It's an industrial crop, and I thought it had no place on my little organic farm." But as he learned about the economic potential and as Comer promised the state's organizational and legal support, a bigger picture came into focus.

"The inability of rural communities to buy their own food is a national security issue," Lewis said. The industrial fast-food systems that now typify rural America have far-reaching consequences, on energy and oil consumption, public health, and to Lewis, society’s greater wellbeing. Ultimately, he "wanted to be involved with anything that helps grow the bottom line for a family farm," he said. "Hemp can be something that will help our communities do things for ourselves." 

An industry snuffed out

In this Aug. 1, 2014 photo, Tony L. Brannon, Murray State University's agriculture dean, shows hemp seeds taken from a plant at the school's research farm in Murray, Kentucky.
Bruce Schreiner / AP

For more than 200 years, hemp was a common crop in the U.S. with common uses, woven into the sailcloth, rope and canvas (a word derived from the Latin, Cannabis) of the expanding country's ships, tents and covered wagons. The plant has been in domestic production for about as long as agriculture has existed, with archaeological evidence of hemp production in ancient China and the Vikings’ Norway. In Colonial America, it was a staple famously grown by the nation's founders and early presidents. In 1849, 3,520 farms produced nearly 18,000 tons in Kentucky alone.

"Most of Kentucky has some sort of history in their family, someone who grew industrial hemp," Holly Harris said. The confusion, controversy and legal wrangling over the plant's domestication dates to the 1937 federal Marijuana Tax Act, the law that conflated the textile crop with psychoactive marijuana, a drug that was culturally associated with Mexican migrants and African-American musicians. Just a few years later, the plant was granted a brief reprieve during World War II when, faced with the war’s urgent needs, the federal Department of Agriculture prodded American farmers with a "Hemp for Victory" campaign

But with the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substances Act, the last significant vestiges of the industry were snuffed out. Unwritten troves of folk wisdom and of region-specific agricultural knowledge were lost. Today, the U.S. imports millions of dollars in hemp products, mostly from China and Canada, but federal law denies American famers the right to independently grown their own.

Hemp is not a drug as commonsense would define it. By federal and state law, the plants growing on Lewis' Healing Ground cannot legally contain more than 0.03 percent THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana. At such low levels, a person could smoke or ingest pounds of the stuff with no discernible effect. As Woolsey put it at the hearing in Frankfort, "The specter of people getting high on industrial hemp is pretty much exactly like saying you can get drunk on O'Doul's."

But these basic facts are also the most common misconceptions. Confusion between cannabis as a textile crop and cannabis as a drug remain the central drag on its full reemergence. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, marijuana is a Schedule 1 narcotic, "the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence." Cocaine, by comparison, is listed as a less dangerous Schedule 2 substance. Schedule 4 drugs, with a "low potential for abuse," include Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Ambien.

The Drug Enforcement Agency acknowledges that hemp and marijuana are not the same thing, but it continues to monitor hemp as if they were. After the agency seized a shipment of Italian hemp seeds in Louisville, Comer filed suit, which eventually led to an out of court settlement and the decision to contract private farmers like Lewis and shield them from federal law enforcement. The DEA may have released the seeds, but they closely monitor the pilot projects for violations, such as expanding research beyond what is narrowly specified by state and federal law, or for marijuana hiding among hemp crops.

“We are charged with enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act,” DEA spokesman Matt Barden told Al Jazeera America. “We gather the facts. We gather the evidence. We present those facts to a prosecutor. They decide if it's warranted to prosecute. If it's true hemp, less than .3 percent THC, that's not something that we need to be, as an agency, spending a great deal of time on.”

‘A natural, nutty taste’

Lewis said that since joining the hemp crusade, he has met plenty of people who believe the plant is the best hope for mankind. "We had these people from Wisconsin who got in their car and drove down here after work," he said, noting that it was at least an eight-hour drive. "They just wanted to check it out."

When I visited the farm, I tagged along with members of the Ohio Hemp Chamber of Commerce, an enthusiastic group that is lobbying for legalization in its home state; they had driven down in an RV to tour Kentucky's pilot projects. Lewis explained the basics of breaking and retting hemp, processes that separate the long fibers from the woody pith. He handed out strands of long, wispy fibers and challenged us to tear them apart. The fibers looked delicate, but as I pulled on them, I realized that they would cut my skin before I could rip them in two.

"We brought famers with us who didn't believe this fairy tale that someone was growing hemp legally that isn't marijuana," said Lauren Berlekamp, the group's co-founder. One of those farmers, Dennis McEndree from Wayne County, Ohio, explained how hemp can be used by organic farmers for weed prevention and introduced me to the difficult-to-prove but widely held belief that the Marijuana Tax Act was pushed through by newspaper (and paper mill) baron William Randolph Hearst as a way to remove competition in the paper market.

As Lewis walked us from his fiber workshop to the barn, the group's energy level started to rise. "My dream for 19 years has been to come shake hands with someone who has been growing legal hemp in America," said E.R. Beach, a tall and gregarious man who owns Hemptations, the largest hemp emporium in Cincinnati, carrying the kinds of processed and manufactured products that are legal under federal law. "Everything I have on is made out of hemp. My shirt, down to my shoes and my underwear," he said, beaming. "This is one of the proudest moments of my life."

We entered the barn and climbed the steep, irregular wooden slats to the loft, where the musky, vegetal smell of hemp oil hovered in the dim light. Lewis walked us through the stands of bushels, explaining how different stalks can be stripped using different techniques to provide different types of fiber. This first year's crop was grown from a cultivar called Futura 75, the same strain, he said, that BMW uses for paneling in its car doors. In the center of the loft, hemp stalks lay next to piles of dried leaves, and seeds crunched under our feet. 

Jeremy Koosed, a hemp-seed food producer, bent down to scoop up some raw seeds and carefully put them in his mouth, one at a time, gazing into the distance and chewing slowly. "This is a serious protein source," he said. Even raw, "they have a natural, nutty taste."  

‘We cannot fail’

It's been 20 years since conservative and liberal protectionists warned against the dangers of Clinton-era globalization. As manufacturing and even service companies were outsourced to countries with cheap labor, the effects hit rural America the hardest.

"Between the prosperity of this vast centralizing economy and the prosperity of any local economy or locality, there is now a radical disconnection," writes native Kentuckian and novelist Wendell Berry. According to the agrarian philosopher, an emphasis on modest, local concerns is the surest path to prosperity. Small- and medium-scale farming, the theory goes, will shore up regional distribution channels and self-reliance that sustained and defined rural America for generations.

Comer's Department of Agriculture doesn't quote Berry in its promotional material, but the agrarian's spirit hovers over the issue in his home state. The hemp gamble is based in part on a simple, radical, Berry-esque question: Can rural America's future be saved by resurrecting the best elements of its past?

Lewis talks about self-reliance as the common goal for both his hemp and Growing Warriors projects. But in this early phase of legalization, he is courting investment and interest from outside groups, a far-flung network committed to small farms and regional markets. Among many bright spots in the past year, he received matching grants from the Patagonia clothing company and Fibershed, a California nonprofit that supports small-scale textiles. The first Patagonia project will produce American flags sewn with 50 percent cotton and 50 percent organic Kentucky hemp.

"Kentucky is organized in a way that has a lot of function to it," said Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess. She hopes that states where hemp is technically legal, but where officials have taken a passive role on the industry, would follow Comer’s more assertive lead. "What I'd love to see is Colorado replicate what Kentucky has done. We want to see producers flourish." But, she added, the ongoing legal vagaries remain the industry's largest impediment. "It's a little hard to predict until this is no longer listed as a Schedule 1 drug. If there were no more legal barriers to entry, it looks a lot better on the economic side of things for Kentucky."   

On the farm, Lewis has dealt with legality in a tangible way: This summer, a black helicopter flew circles at low altitude over his farm. The DEA won't confirm if the helicopter belonged to it, the state police or some other entity. Deciding that humor was the best strategy, Lewis planted a late-summer start of hemp plants in a stars-and-stripes pattern. "We don't want to fight the DEA," he said, adding that law enforcement agents are "just doing their job."

As he twirled hemp fibers between his fingers in his workshop, the free-spirited veteran seemed both contented and focused on a mission that was half chosen, half ordered. "I fully understand the responsibility that Commissioner Comer put on me," Lewis said. "It's keeps me up at night. We cannot fail."

Related News

Agriculture, Drugs

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Agriculture, Drugs

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter