Perhaps the most misunderstood agricultural product on the market today, industrial hemp is seeing a surge of growth among U.S. agriculture producers now planting the crop in record numbers, often replacing staples like soy, corn and tobacco. With growing interest from farmers looking for more profitable harvests — and support from power brokers like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushing for legalization — the legislative scales may be tipping in favor of freeing hemp from federal prohibition as early as this year.
A key factor to understanding the haziness surrounding cannabis legalization is realizing the difference between hemp and marijuana. Hemp is not marijuana. Both are types of cannabis, but one is used as a fuel, fiber, and food source (hemp), the other gets you high (marijuana). While laws regarding medical and recreational marijuana in the U.S. continue to play out state by state — with medical marijuana now legal for use in 30 states — hemp advocacy is making greater headway gaining support at the federal level. Hemp’s nonexistent psychoactive qualities have a lot to do with its widespread support. Because hemp is technically described by the feds as containing no more than 0.3 percent THC (the high-inducing facet of cannabis), hemp is considered less of a threat than marijuana and not seen as a substance for abuse.
A huge advancement occurred for hemp with the signing of the 2014 Omnibus Farm Bill, which included an amendment permitting farmers to grow industrial hemp as a pilot program in conjunction with state ag departments and universities. Since then, hemp has been planted in record numbers across America. It is now legal to produce in 39 American states. Vote Hemp — the nation’s foremost hemp advocacy group working to change state and federal laws to allow commercial hemp farming — detailed in a 2017 U.S. Hemp Crop Report that 23,343 acres of hemp were cultivated last year, more than double the acreage of the previous year.
Now the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 aided by Senator McConnell, may very well see hemp legal under federal law if it passes this year, as the current Farm Bill expires on September 30.
While hemp producers in states like Colorado, North Dakota and Oregon have all ramped up hemp production since 2014, it’s in Kentucky — once called the “Hemp Capital of the World” — where farmers are seeing hemp outperform other long-standing crops like tobacco.
In London, Kentucky, 39-year-old Brent Cornett, a 7th-generation farmer whose family farm includes beef, corn, soy, and produce — and until recently, primarily tobacco — has over the past few years turned to cultivating hemp in greater amounts. The farmer said a few planting seasons back he became aware of a grower’s group led by Atalo Holdingsin Winchester, Kentucky, that was helping farmers to add hemp to their rotations. He joined Atalo’s group in 2016 testing out 20 acres, with good results, and has increased his acreage every year since.
Cornett said the resources available from Atalo and the knowledge base of the growers’ group helped him increase production to 35 acres in 2017 and 85 acres in 2018. “There’s been plenty of challenges with a new crop, but as of today, a mediocre hemp crop is yielding a better return than an excellent tobacco crop,” he said.
Steadfast advocates for hemp legalization since the 1990s, the founders of Atalo have been instrumental in accelerating the Bluegrass State’s knowledge around hemp and are dedicated to the research, development and commercialization of the crop. “What we bring to the table is proprietary seed, dramatically improved agronomics, including planting, harvesting, drying, quality-controlled processing, and access to markets,” said Joseph Hickey, Director of Corporate Relations at Atalo.
Starting with five farmers and 35 acres in 2014, the grower’s group is now 60 farmers strong across Kentucky, and is working with farmers in Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as advising growers in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, and Wisconsin.
“As the U.S. hemp market continues to grow at a double-digit pace annually, American consumers continue to demonstrate their strong interest in hemp products,” said Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra, who estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2017 to be at least $820 million.
Cornett sees a bright future for hemp on the horizon. “When hemp is legalized, we’ll be able to get insurance and also use the crop for collateral. Then we can really take off,” he said. “It’s an excellent replacement for tobacco, and we’re happy to be growing a crop that helps people instead of one that was found to hurt people.”