Hemp is Becoming the New Tobacco For Kentucky Farmers


By Ariana Marisol

Across Kentucky’s rolling hills, farmers are beginning to plant less tobacco and more hemp. The once tobacco-dependent state has now more than doubled sowings of hemp in 2016, becoming the second highest producer in the U.S., trailing Colorado.

Kentucky’s first hemp crop was grown in 1775, with almost all of the nation’s production being grown in the Bluegrass region following the Civil War, according to the state’s agriculture department.

Unlike marijuana, hemp is a variety of cannabis that cannot get you high. It contains less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC. Hemp can be processed into more than 25,000 products, and main uses include rope, linens, food, and personal-care products.

Farmer Giles Shell believes that the profit is promising. He farms with his dad and his brother on 200 acres 45 minutes south of Lexington, Kentucky. Next year the family plans to dedicate 80 acres to hemp cultivation. This is land that for four generations was dedicated to tobacco.

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There were strict controls on hemp for many decades amid anti-drug sentiments, making it illegal to grow without a permit from the government. In 2014, the U.S. farm bill authorized state agriculture departments to create industrial hemp research pilot programs, reopening production opportunities. Only 33 acres were planted in Kentucky that year. By 2015, seedings rose to 922 acres, and jumped to 2,350 acres in 2016, according to the state’s agriculture department.

Yet compared to tobacco cultivation, which was grown on 72,900 acres in Kentucky in 2015, this type of cultivation is still relatively tiny. Hay, the state’s number 1 crop, was seeded on 2.37 million acres. Still, the state accounts for almost 25% of the 9,650 hemp acres grown nationally this year, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

The changing national views on pot are giving hemp a major boost. Voters in Washington and Colorado were the first to approve recreational use of marijuana in 2012. Now, eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, permitting a fifth of Americans to consume weed freely in their home states. The Colorado initiative also included legislation governing the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp. These laws have proven to be very lucrative.

Steve Bevan, the chief executive officer of GenCanna, believes that hemp’s potential is huge. GenCanna is a Kentucky-based industrial hemp grower that is extracting oil from the plant to use in wholesale and retail products, The company plans to boost its production to 500 acres in 2017, up from 100 this year.

The first hemp crop in Kentucky was grown in 1775, and almost all of the nation’s production was grown in the Bluegrass region following the Civil War. The crop was included with federal legislation that outlawed cannabis harvesting in 1938, and output dwindled to practically nothing following the Second World War.

In contrast, U.S. tobacco farming began to climb in the early 1900s and topped 2 billion pounds in 1946 as cigarette consumption grew. A federal quota system that supported prices ended in 2004 and national output dropped 3% in 2016. Kentucky still remains the nation’s second largest tobacco grower, trailing North Carolina.

As the tobacco market continues to decline and prices for grains and commodities remain depressed, farmers are looking for alternatives. The industrial hemp business will only grow stronger as the years go by and this seems promising to a lot of Kentucky farmers.

Total retail sales of the products in the U.S. reached $573 million in 2015, according to the Hemp Industries Association. Sales by conventional retailers are growing. Products can even be found in stores like Costco and Target, in addition to specialty retailers.

Most of these products that are sold in the U.S. are imported from other countries and growers. Processors have an opportunity to gain a foothold in the market as demand rises.

Ariana Marisol is a contributing staff writer for REALfarmacy.com where this article first appeared. She is an avid nature enthusiast, gardener, photographer, writer, hiker, dreamer, and lover of all things sustainable, wild, and free. Ariana strives to bring people closer to their true source, Mother Nature. She graduated The Evergreen State College with an undergraduate degree focusing on Sustainable Design and Environmental Science. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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